Friday, January 13, 2012
Tonight we lay alongside the story of Jesus’ birth the story of another king, another one through whom Divine Love entered the world. Come with me, back through time, back more than 1,000 years, back to a cold night, not unlike this one, one of the longest nights of the year.
Come across the Atlantic Ocean, where we find ourselves in Bohemia, in what we know today as the Czech Republic, more specifically, in Prague. A young couple of royal lineage, Wratislaw, Duke of Bohemia and Drahomira of the Veletians have just given birth to their first-born son, Vaclav.
Meanwhile, in a forest nearby, a young, poor farming couple gave birth to their first-born daughter, Gina, on a bed of pine needles.
Gina, the poor farm girl, lived a simple childhood, playing with the pigs her Dad raised, helping Mom cook and clean, watching after her little sisters and brothers.
Vaclav, son of the Duke of Bohemia, was taken under the care of his grandmother Ludmilla, his father’s mother. A good Christian woman (who would be officially sainted), she wanted to see the boy raised in the Christian faith - and didn’t believe his mother Drahomira, would see to that.
Ludmilla taught young Vaclav to read and write in Slavonic, the language in Bohemia of the Bible and the church, in addition to Latin and Greek. Each fall Vaclav went to his grandma’s country castle for the harvest. There he learned to make the bread and wine for the communion meal the church celebrated each day.
Then Vaclav was 13, his father Wratislaw was killed in battle. His mother Drahoomira ruled the land as Duchess of Bohemia until Vaclav would come of age. She repressed the Christians, persecuted the priests, and forbid the practice of Christianity.
In fear, Vaclav’s grandma Ludmilla fled the capital city of Prague to her caste at Tetin on the edge of Bohemia, where she hoped to live out her final days in quiet prayer and serving the poor. Instead, her daughter-in-law Drahomira, had her brutally killed.
Vaclav, though outwardly compliant with his mother’s anti-Christian actions, secretly continued to bake the bread and press the wine for communion and read his Bible.
For Gina, life became gradually more difficult on the hardscrabble farm. Her duties increased as the mouths to feed became bigger and more numerous. Every day was spent collecting seeds and berries, digging for roots, and hoping to find enough twigs and branches to build a fire, to stay warm.
Life became even more difficult for Gina after her marriage to the son of another pig farmer. With two infants to care for, her husband’s legs were paralyzed in a hunting accident. He wouldn’t walk again. All the household duties fell to Gina.
Meanwhile, many of the nobles tired of Drahomira’s rule and organized a successful uprising, installing Vaclav as Duke of Bohemia at age 20. He based his political rule on his Christian faith, governing with justice and mercy. The people loved him for his generosity, his compassion, and his intolerance of oppression. He spent long hours in prayer. Though the nobles had exiled his mother at Budech, Vaclav pardoned her.
Soon after Vaclav began his rule, he faced a surprise military attack from Germany. Rather than fight and suffer even greater loss of lives, he signed a treaty of peaceful alliance with Germany’s King Henry I. This pleased the people, but upset the nobles, who wanted Bohemia to retain its fierce independence.
Gina was glad to not see her brothers and sons go off to battle. But still, life grew more difficult when a disease attacked their herd of swine, killing all but two. Winter fast approached, and she didn’t know how her family would survive.
In Bohemia that winter nearly 1100 years ago, winter winds began to howl, the snow came down as fast as anyone could remember. With neither food nor firewood, Gina made one last venture to the woods to search any twigs or nuts or berries that might have somehow remained uncovered by the blizzard.
Finding only three wet twigs, she returned home, resigned to a cold and harsh end to their world.
Vaclav, Duke of Bohemia, watched from his castle window as the blizzard blew in. The nobles of his court built a roaring fire, noting amidst their reveling how this Christmas would be a dreadful one for those with no fire or no food stored up.
Out the window, Duke Vaclav saw the faint shadow of a figure searching the forest edge, barely visible through the blinding snow.
Jeff and Liz will continue our story by singing lyrics by John Mason Neale:
Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen,
when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shown the moon that night, though the frost was cruel, when a poor one came in sight, gathering winter fuel.
Hither, page, and stand by me. If thou know it telling:
yonder peasant, who is she? Where and what her dwelling?
Sire, she lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence by Saint Agnes fountain.
Bring me flesh, and bring me wine. Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I will see him dine when we bear the thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together
through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.
Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how. I can go no longer.
Ark my footsteps my good page, tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly.
In his master's step he trod, where the snow lay dented.
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christians all, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing
Thus began what became Duke Vaclav’s greatest legacy: he would bring provisions to the poor in the middle of the night, so they would not be shamed and embarrassed by others knowing how destitute they were. He regularly provided the poor of Bohemia with housing, clothing, food, and firewood.
On his midnight journeys, he gave alms to widows and orphans and visited the imprisoned. He became known as “the father of all the wretched.” He never forgot that his Lord, his God, his north star, was born in the lowest of human conditions - in a manger made for animals, far, far from home, and under dubious circumstances.
After Duke Vaclav’s death at the hands of his brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, son of Germany’s King Henry I, conferred on Vaclav the title King, and thus he became Good King Wenceslas.
Today, Czechs and Slovaks gather around a statue of the king in Wenceslas Square for celebrations and protests. In his words on the the celebration of Wenceslas feast day there four years ago, Apostolic Nuncio Diego Cansero spoke to us:
“Good King Wenceslas was able to incarnate his Christianity in a world filled with political unrest....His call for all Christians and people of good will is to become involved in positive social change and political activity, no matter how much it costs, in order to bring harmony and justice to society.”
Let us go to bless the poor, as God in Christ has come to us - all humanity and us as individuals - in the midst of our poverty, whatever shape our godforsakeness has taken. May we, too, walk in the footsteps of Good King Wenceslas, and know the warmth and blessings of God’s gift to us and through us.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Preached on Nov. 27 at Douglas UCC by Rev. Andrew DeBraber, the first of an Advent series titled "Prepare the Way: A Spirituality of Emptiness."
Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
Dale was a tree hugger. He hugged trees and he taught and encouraged others - especially children - to hug trees. He hugged big old maple trees and small birch saplings. He hugged dark, round black walnut trees and smooth, light beech trees. Nose to bark, he could smell the tree’s essence and feel its pulsating energy. Body pushed up against the trunk, he found support in the tree, not only for his leaning body but for his soul.
On one particular tree-hugging day - a day a lot like today, cool and cloudy, Dale prepared to grab hold of a decent-sized red oak. He stepped up close, put his arms gently around the tree, laid his head against the bark, and began to lean into the hug. Suddenly, Dale and the tree were on the ground.
Surprised, shaken, and dirty, Dale slowly righted himself. Looking down, it became clear: this tree, this promising mighty oak, had no roots. It looked fine from the ground up, but that which is unseen, that which is in the dark, that which sustains life, had been neglected. Without roots, the tree toppled easily.
Like, one might say, a Christmas tree. Or a Christmas people without Advent. Advent, these next four weeks, is about paying attention to the darkness, the places that appear to be filled with emptiness. Advent is about preparing the way by making space within our lives, our hearts, our souls, for the in-breaking of the Divine in new and surprising ways.
As a people, we are generally afraid of the dark. When this season rolls around, we put up as much light and glitz as we can. Yet there is a time to embrace the darkness. There is a time to let go of the need for light and noise, a time to let go of all images, if we are to birth authentic images in our lives, work, prayer, and art. For growth of the human person, like the roots of the tree, takes place in the dark. We are first developed in the darkness of the womb. Our bodies and psyches grow in the darkness of sleep. Our organs operate in the darkness of our bodies.
And just as God is Light, God is also Darkness. TS Eliot writes, “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you, which shall be the darkness of God.” Drawing on the image of the tree, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Yet no matter how deeply I go down into myself, my God is dark, and like a webbing made of a hundred roots that drink in silence.”
The prophet Isaiah perceives God’s darkness as God having hid from the people. Or could it be that the people are hiding from God? Or looking only in the light, pushing over tree after tree?
A spirituality of emptiness does not mean being empty forever. “To be empty is to be available inside to attend to something other than the self” (Joan Chittister). To be empty is to prepare the way. A spirituality of emptiness asks if there is such a thing as emptiness. Can something ever be truly empty? Or is it only our perception of emptiness? Is is only that we are expecting one thing to be there and thus don’t perceive what is really there?
When we can be still enough and quiet enough, we can begin to let go of what we expect to be there - we can let go of our expectations. I remember once as a child at Christmas opening a bag from my Grandma with a gift in it - I don’t even remember the gift. But I remember after receiving it looking into the bag and voicing something to the effect of “What else is in here?” Only to find it empty. I was, as you can imagine, chastised for my ingratitude, for the bag was not empty, it was filled with what my eyes could not see: a love that cherished and blessed me.
Keep alert, keep awake, Jesus urges in our story from Mark. Both the Markan and Isaiah passages talk of great and noisy goings-on. Those things are happening even now. Apocalypse is happening at the hands of humanity and God is moving in incredible ways. Yet unless we let silence be silence, unless we are willing to delve into the darkness, we will not perceive God at work, we will not hear the creation crying out, we will not make room for God to be born in us again this season.
Keep alert, keep awake, for fresh possibilities for deliverance and human wholeness. Turn off the noise and light that, ironically, puts us to sleep to what is happen right next to us, right below us, right inside us. Keep alert, keep awake, for the Divine is happening.
Very practically, try turning off the radio or television or phone for awhile. Or not turning it on when the impulse strikes. But don’t turn it off just to turn it off. Turn it off to be present to the silence. Focus on your breath. Take some time in nature, which is so silent this time of year. Try reading small bits of poetry or Scripture. Or play with children and animals.
And if we’re really brave, we can join Meister Eckhart, who “prayed God to rid me of God.” Not even our names and symbols for God can go unchecked. We pray even to let go of God. Here, if anywhere, lies ‘sheer abandon.’ Here, if anywhere, stand trees strong enough and rooted enough to wait in silence, to let go of expectations, and to birth the Divine in most amazing ways. Let us attend to the silence, the darkness.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Preached at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ by Rev. Andy DeBraber on Nov. 20, 2011:
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
In the end, this is a story about the “region between,” even though there is technically no region between Samaria and Galilee. There is only a border. And it is geographically a strange way to get to Jerusalem. But this “region between” is where we find ethnic tensions and outcasts from both sides. This “region between” is where Jesus tends to hang out. This “region between” points us to what the reign of God, reign of Christ, kingdom of God, queendom of God, kin-dom of God looks like: healing, gratitude, wholeness, and a whole new life.
This “region between” is well known to Tracy. She has been working for the past 17 months as a legal assistant in a large firm. She is liked by her co-workers and appreciated by her employers. Having worked in the Peace Corps in Korea, her resume shows fluent Korean language skills. So when one of the company’s clients opened a business in Seoul, S. Korea, Tracy was asked to serve on special assignment for two to three months as translator and legal advisor while the business was being set up.
She gladly agreed, until she remembered her passport, which shows her and identifies her as a man. How would she get into the country as a man and still be a woman with her coworkers and client? Hear her words:
“Here I am with a South Korean visa in one hand and a plane ticket in the other. I'm really puzzled as to how I'm going to get through customs/immigration, but I have a plan. I had to submit a photograph of me along with my visa application, and did myself up as a man quite well. The photos matched close enough, and I only had to practice my male signature a few times to get it right.
However, a photograph passing, and a living breathing (and potentially nervous) person passing are two TOTALLY different things. I've been practicing in preparation for the big day, and have a few tips on "reverse passing" as I'll call it.
First, anatomically there is the problem of the "units" attached to my chest (she had breast augmentation surgery and wears a 34C). That shouldn't be too much of a problem. I’ll just buy a very tight joggin bra and wear a really loose sweatshirt on the plane (corporate types don't care what you wear on a 14 hour flight).
Second, hair can be pulled into a tail and worn in a hat. Shouldn't be too much of a problem, besides, many men have ponytails these days. The biggest problem there would be the cut and style difference from the passport to the "actual head". Again, easily explained.
Third is the removal of all makeup and traces of ANYTHING. One thing I have been doing is wearing only one earring when "reverse passing", and then it is a simple gold hoop. If I let my whiskers grow for about 3 days, I look like an adolescent teenager with a light beard. With the singular earring the effect is pretty good.
In order to be ready for this experiment, Tracy decided to practice by purchasing wine and beer in the local supermarket as a man so that she would get carded and have to show her driver’s license, which pictures her as a man:
The first time I went to buy coolers as a man since living as a woman, I accidentally took my purse in. WHOOPS!!!! I didn't realize what I had done until I had gotten to the checkstand and had to actually take out my license. I had it in a Dooney-Burke billfold (very feminine looking) in my matching purse. I was so nervous I'd be "read backwards" (this does get a bit confusing) that I dropped my license on the floor. As I bent down to pick it up, I thought I saw the check-out boy look down my shirt and see my breasts. I could have died! I tried to regroup and just handed it to him with a $20. That's when I looked down and saw my well manicured nails. Luckily I only wear clear enamel, but no man I know of has nails this pretty! The checker gave me a quizzical look, but I rationalized that off as being an old ID. He didn't say anything, but I was so paranoid I was sure that he knew.
I hurriedly took my change and ID and stuffed them in my purse. I took the coolers, and BRISKLY walked out to my car. All the way out the door and to my car, I imagined a hand grabbing me on my shoulder and asking me to come back into the store for a "little chat." I got to my car and threw myself inside. My head was spinning, my heart was pounding, and I was nearly out of breath! I just sat in my car laughing/crying at myself for being so stupid! I am usually so methodical and plan things out, but I just got lazy and didn't think before actually going to the store.
The hand grabbing me on the shoulder, the “little chat”: these are constant concerns to those of us who are transgender, for whom there is no correct restroom to us and no way to simple check the boxes that ask “female or male.”
That’s not the end of Tracy’s story. She plans to have transitional surgery when she’s saved up the money. Being transgendered in any way, shape, or form - and there are many - means living in the “region between.”
Technically, the definition of transgender includes:
- people whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender roles, but combines or moves between these.
- People who were assigned a sex, usually at birth and based on their genitals, but who feel that this is a false or incomplete description of themselves.
- Non-identification with, or non-presentation as, the sex (and assumed gender) one was assigned at birth.
The other nine lepers, presuming they were Jewish, could upon being inspected and washed by the priest go back to some former life, family, and community they knew. The Samaritan leper who was healed and returned with gratitude to Jesus and praise for God could not return to this same community. A Samaritan in Israel was a foreigner and an outcast, even without the leprosy. It is this one who found in Jesus not a way back to an old life, but a whole new life of welcoming the stranger and the outcast. This one was made well, made whole.
So, too, Tracy cannot go back to her old life. She is overjoyed - even with its many complications - to be finally living the life her heart and soul have known she was meant to live all along. She gives thanks daily in English and Korean. She is one of the strong and courageous ones to fight against a world whose circumstances are set up against her. Even as we remember and learn from her story, we remember on this Transgender Day of Remembrance the stories of so many transgender sisters and brothers who have been killed because they dared to live in the “region between” by people who did not perceive the incredible gift they are to humanity, by people who choice violence as a response to fear and difference rather than compassion, curiosity, and understanding.
Tracy makes it through each day by practicing a gratitude born out of trial. She could so easily choose to see the world through eyes of hostility. Yet she chooses instead to go to bed each night and wake up each morning by listing three things for which she’s grateful. A 2003 study by Robert Emmons & Michael McCullough shows the immense benefits of keeping a gratitude log and seeing the world with thanksgiving. Those who listed five things a day they were grateful for were compared to those who wrote down five complaints or hassles and those who wrote down five events that happened during the day. The gratitude listers exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week; they were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) and had higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy, and slept better. In fact, MJ Ryan, author of Attitudes of Gratitude, estimates that the effects of practicing gratitude add 6.9 years to life, greater than the effects of stopping smoking or exercising.
Neurobiologically, gratitude is felt in the same frontal regions of the brain that are activated by awe, wonder and transcendence. From these cortical and limbic structures come dopamine and serotonin, the chemicals for feeling good inside. Specifically, when we think positive thoughts such as gratitude, kindness, and optimism, we activate our left pre-frontal cortex and flood our bodies with the feel-good hormones, which give us an upswing in mood in the short term and strengthen our immune system in the long run.
So let’s give ourselves and others the gifts of gratitude. Let’s extend Thanksgiving for at least a month. Let’s be not only healed, but made well, made whole. Make a game of it if you need to: what can I find to be thankful about even in this most trying of situations? what can I find to be thankful about in this difficult relative of mine? How can I dwell in the “region between,” full of new life and positive transformation? May this practice bring us more in tune with the Divine and the reign of the Spirit in the world.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Preached by Rev. Andy DeBraber at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ on Nov. 6, 2011:
I Corinthians 9:19-27
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
Today is your lucky day! You have come to the right place. Because here’s what we have to offer you: the secret key to a whole world of possibilities. You can have a clearer mind, less stress, more serenity, and a better ability to cope with tasks. You can have greater peace of mind, greater inner strength, greater will power, greater self-confidence, and better functioning in daily life.
You will be able to make your mind work for you when you need its services. You will be able to silence it when its services are not needed. Things, circumstances and events that used to agitate and anger you will not influence your inner calmness. You will experience happiness, contentment, and satisfaction. You will be more conscious of the choices being made in life, more self-determined than one’s life being determined by other forces. You will be able to attain your life goals, your “Bucket List,” if you will.
And all of this for just $69.99! No, despite all of that, I’m not trying to sell you something. However, there is of course a catch: you must tame the monkey - the monkey mind, that is. The one that wants to jump quickly from place to place to place, from one activity to another. The good news is that the monkey can be tamed.
In fact, we have all done it at times in the experience of what is called “flow”: those moments when we are so into doing something that nothing else matters. This usually happens when we are doing something we love. The rest of the world seems to stand still. Time does not exist. An hour might as well be five minutes. We are filled with energy. We give no thought to the lists of other things that must be done.
In those moments, our attention is hyper-focused, our concentration complete. We feel fully alive. The idea of today’s message, “Concentrating our Energy,” is that we can live this kind of life more often. The affirmation in the children’s curriculum is “I give full attention to everything I do.”
Paul writes to the Corinthians about exercising self-control, running the race to win it, enslaving the body. While that language may sound a bit harsh, he’s inviting us to channel our energy into what we really want to accomplish in life. We are not only our bodies. We are not only our minds. We are the ones who exercise self-control and can point our bodies and minds in the direction we want to go and keep them going in that direction even as they will naturally want to wander off, like Barnabas the monkey.
The concentration necessary for such self-control is like a magnifying glass on a sunny summer day: it takes the parallel rays of the sun, which might warm a piece of paper, and focuses them intensely in one spot, enough to burn that same piece of paper. Sometimes, the paper will even burst into flames. With concentration, we can burn with a particular passion, shutting out all negative and destructive thoughts. With concentration, our focused attention allows new insights to burst onto the scene.
We can train our minds to concentrate better, a skill so necessary in an increasingly fragmented world where so much calls for our attention at the same time: we have three windows open on the computer doing our email, banking, and facebook, when the cell phone rings followed by the landline ringing. Recent studies say we were not physiologically made for this. And learning to concentrate can help immensely.
The key to developing concentration is effort. It’s the effort to pay close attention, to keep coming back. Usually the energies of the mind are scattered in a thousand different directions. The mind is all over the place, and its energy is simply frittered away in random thoughts and desires, hopes, fears, feelings.
As concentration deepens, our minds become calm and centered. We’re less reactive. We come into greater emotional balance. We can more easily let go and let things be. The mind gains a spaciousness which gives room for pain and anger and fear all to arise and pass, without our being broken by them, or needing to act them out.
The choice is ours, to be a slave to the mind and its whims, or to be its master. Mind loves its freedom more than anything else, and will try to stand in the way of concentration whenever it can. The drift of thoughts that occurs in our minds is not necessarily a bad thing nor a disorderly one; it is the relaxed condition of mind, and we can use it for resting when we are mentally tired, as we do each night while dreaming.
In much of everyday life, most people are effectively day-dreaming - at worst we are sleep-walking automatons. Our minds flip mechanically from one thing to another, never resting on anything for very long or intentionally. Unless we can wake ourselves from this mechanicalness and sleep, we cannot begin work on ourselves and we cannot get things done in life.
As we are able to concentrate more, the subconscious mind will be less able to affect us. Really, only the ‘sleeper’ is affected by the subconscious mind. When we wake up, we are free of it. For instance, if you concentrate on a book, you are aware of the book and you are not thinking, looking, or listening to anything else. You are aware of the associations; in fact, you are more aware, but you are not distracted by them.
A person with good powers of concentration can shift their attention from point to point and return at will to the original center. A person with poor concentration wanders to distant matters: golf, income tax statement, the attractive person nearby, or anything at all. One disconnected thought leads to another, and in a little while this individual forgets what he or she was originally considering.
Concentration is a means to live life purposely and creatively rather than as a reaction to the flow of sensations, causatively rather than at effect. Our ability to pursue chosen goals irrespective of obstacles placed in our path is one measure of our freedom from slavery to the monkey.
Concentration is like a muscle, the more we exercise the stronger it becomes. We must engage in training. I have three practical skills for us today:
which sounds very simple, but it works. When you notice your thoughts wandering, say to yourself STOP and then gently bring your attention back to where you want it to be. Each time it wanders bring it back. To begin with, this could be several times a minute. But each time, say STOP and then re-focus. Don't waste energy trying to keep thoughts out of your mind (forbidden thoughts attract like a magnet!), just put the effort into STOP and re-focus. To begin with you will do this hundreds of times a week. But you will find that the period of time between your straying thoughts gets a little longer each day, so be patient and keep at it.
2. Worry time
Set aside one or more specific periods in the day when you are allowed to worry. It can help to set them just before something that you know you will do, to ensure that you stop worrying on time - e.g. before a favorite TV show or a meal-time. Whenever an anxiety or distracting thought enters your mind during the day, banish it until your next worry time, and re-focus on what you are supposed to be doing. Some people find it helpful to write down the banished thought: it is easier to banish a thought if you are sure you won't have forgotten it when you get to your worry time. It is important that you keep your worry time(s), and make yourself worry for the full time. If you find that you can't fill the time available, then make a conscious decision to reduce it. You may notice, particularly if you keep a list, that certain things keep reappearing: this is a fairly clear indication that you need to do something about them.
3. Candle Concentration (I had people practice this at the beginning of the service and then referenced it here.
- In this exercise, we will use the candle, although you can adapt the exercise to whatever object you are using. Sit with your back straight, and place the burning candle at eye level.
- First bring your awareness to your breath. Gradually your breath becomes slower and more relaxed. Try to imagine a thread placed in front of our nose; you are breathing so quietly it will not move to and fro.
- Now we look at the object. Gradually bring your attention to a tiny part of the candle flame, for example, the very tip of the flame.
- When you breathe in, feel that your breath, like a golden thread, is coming from that point on the candle and entering into your heart. And when you breath out, feel that your breath, feel that the light is leaving the heart, passing through a point in your forehead between the eyebrows and a little above (in Eastern philosophy this is a powerful concentration point) and then entering into the object of concentration. Try to feel that nothing else exists except you and the object you are focusing on.
- When you do this exercise, thoughts will invariably get in the way. When this happens, don’t be annoyed or upset, just bring your attention back to the exercise. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and similarly it will take time to rein in your mind.
After a couple weeks of this practice - first two or three minutes a day, then five, maybe increasing to 10 or 15 minutes, you should notice the progress -- a clearer mind, better ability to cope with tasks, less stress, more serenity. May it be so. Amen.
Friday, October 28, 2011
Preached on October 23 at Douglas UCC by Rev. Andy DeBraber:
Matthew 17:18-20: 18And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
We tend to think of this mountain-moving as some kind of magic: have enough faith and in an instant the mountain will disappear from one place and appear in another. Yet even a biblical literalist, while saying that God could do that if God wanted, cannot say she’s ever seen it happen.
We have instead been reminded this month of what we have seen happen by the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington D.C. A mountain is moved stone by stone, shovelful by shovelful. The quote from King on which the monument is based comes from his “I have a dream” speech on the national mall in 1963, when he said:
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
Through the hard work of a myriad of God’s people, that mountain has been at least reduced to a hill. With our continued work, one day may it be fully moved.
Yet, we may argue, I am no Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s right. You are you. Stepping into the Divine Energy that exists always and everywhere means being yourself, doing what’s natural to you, even as we grow into newer skills and abilities.
Take Mary Manning, for instance. Born in the year King gave his rousing speech, this 21-year-old Irish grocery store clerk heard about the great injustice of apartheid in South Africa and a plea to combat the racial crimes there by not buying products from South Africa. So, as a store clerk that day, she rang up all her customers goods except the fruit that was imported from South Africa. Customers complained, managers came, she was fired.
Other clerks in the store then joined her in not selling South African produce. Soon, clerks throughout Dublin and Ireland wouldn’t sell the racist fruit. The country, through what began as one woman’s simple action where she was, came to know the true cost of cheap produce. Eventually, the company stopped selling the apartheid-produced fruit. Ireland banned the import of South African goods. Three years after standing up for justice, Mary Manning got her job back. And all of Ireland learned the power of one person’s commitment to act in solidarity with those who are oppressed. Ten years later, in 1994, apartheid in South Africa was dismantled, thanks to Mary Manning and many like her throughout the world and the courageous actions of those in South Africa.
And, as you know, she didn’t act alone. Not only did the store clerks join her, but others supported her while the protest continued and she had no job, giving her lodging, food, and money.
What we’re talking about here is faith. In our continuing series, “Becoming Like Children: A Joyful Path,” we’ve covered the topics of God, Jesus, the Bible, and Inclusion. Now faith. Or, as the TCPC Curriculum puts is, Discovering Divine Energy.
Faith, or Divine Energy, can be a slippery topic. Synonyms include trust and power. We can see that trust and power playing out with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement, with Mary Manning and the anti-apartheid movement.
Too often, faith is understood as intellectual assent. Let us be reminded again (and again and again) by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine: God does not ask for our minds, God asks for our hearts.
The Chinese definition of power incorporates the heart God asks for. Power is moving forward, with heart, to achieve a goal. Jesus is not interested in moving the mountain simply to move the mountain. The goal in the immediate context is two-fold: cast out the demon and heal the person before him; and second, teach the disciples that they have the power within them to affect the world for better: healing, wholeness, peace, justice, forgiveness, grace. Believe this good news, get through your fear, and take responsibility.
It’s no mistake that Jesus then uses the comparison to a mustard seed. You already know that it’s a small seed that quickly grows into a large plant. But the Greek doesn’t talk about size at all. A more accurate translation is: “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed.” Instead of focusing on size, the real call here is to focus on the type of faith a mustard seed has (remember, the type of trust, the type of power).
Anne Robertson, a United Methodist minister in Boston and director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, comments, “Suppose we had faith that could really believe in the far-reaching effects of our tiny little efforts. We are all too often shut down by thinking some version of, "Well, I'm just too small to matter." "What difference can I make? I am only one." "This problem is too big for me." That is not the kind of faith that a mustard seed has. It's own size has nothing to do with the question. It is the seed of a mustard plant, and mustard plants are big. It will grow...that is its nature.
“When we have the faith of a mustard seed, we recognize our nature. We are fully confident that we are made in the image of God and therefore the powerful love of God can and will be channeled through us. That's what the disciples forgot in the Matthew story. They thought that because they were only human they couldn't cast out a powerful demon. But that wasn't their true nature. They belonged to God and had the power of God at their disposal. It doesn't matter if we're only one. It doesn't matter if we're small or poor or uneducated or weak. It doesn't matter if we're facing demons. Our power is God's power, and with God all things are possible. We may just be a seed, but we are a mustard seed...and that means big things.
“More than that, the mustard seed knows that its destiny as a mustard plant comes at great personal cost. For the seed to become a plant, the seed must be broken apart, and yet the seed has faith that even in its own breaking and death, a magnificent plant will grow. We rarely think like that. When the breaking times come for us, that is when we tend to think God has gone on vacation without us...that we are being punished or abandoned or that people have lied to us about there even being a God. When we are breaking, we often stop believing in the plant that is to come. Not so the mustard seed. The mustard seed gives itself to the ground, to the breaking, to the death; completely confident that something incredible is going to come of it.”
Let us give ourselves to something incredible! Let us change the world together! This is faith, this is trust, this is power, this is tapping into the Divine Energy available to each person! Let us start asking each other, “How have you changed the world today?”
Some of us already think that’s a crazy idea. Others find ourselves on the defensive. But some of us have an answer at the ready: “I resolved a dispute with my neighbor.” “I said no thanks, I won’t use plastic bags.” “I smiled at the waiter and told him what a great job he was doing.” “I contacted my state rep about anti-bullying legislation.” “I dropped off food at Christian Neighbors.” “I took part in Occupy West Michigan.”
Robert Greenleaf, author of the classic book Servant Leadership, makes us aware of how many mustard seeds never get planted and mountains never get moved by reminding us that the problem is
“Not evil people. Not stupid people. Not apathetic people. Not the 'system’....The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people, and their failure to lead. Too many of us settle for being critics and experts. There is too much intellectual wheel spinning, too much retreating into research, too little preparation for and willingness to undertake the hard and high risk tasks of building better institutions in an imperfect world, too little disposition to see the problem as residing “in here” and not “out there.” In short, the enemy is good people who have the potential to lead but do not lead. They suffer; society suffers.”
The solution is you: good people who have the potential and do lead, by words and actions. The solution is taking the mustard seeds out of the packets, out of the jars, and out into the world. Be planted. Take action for good. Discover the Divine Energy, the Power, that awaits. Relish the joy of moving mountains. Together, with faith, we can do it!
Preached by Rev. Andy DeBraber at Douglas UCC on October 16, 2011
Scripture: Genesis 3:1-24 (Eve, Adam, the serpent, the fruit)
From the beginning of time, people have made up stories about the origins of humanity - why we are and why we are the way we are. We have just heard the ancient Israelites story about why we are the way we are. It involves not only Eve, Adam, God, and the serpent, but also an apple, sin, and the fall of humanity, right? Right? When you heard Mike read the story, did you hear those terms, or at least picture them in your head?
If you were listening closely, there was no apple. The words “sin” and “fall” were not spoken. In fact, those concepts were not applied until a couple hundred years after Jesus. The rest of the Hebrew Scriptures don’t refer to this story with reference to sin, original sin, or the fall.
But that’s what culture can do to a story. And it’s what we do as human communities in story-telling mode: we add on to and change the story, making it our own. We read into it our cultural biases. That’s how the Bible was created. As UCC scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “The Bible is an act of faithful imagination, rooted in memory and always pressing toward the new possibilities before us.”
Many of the stories in the Bible were told over and over again for centuries before anyone wrote them down. And many of the books of the Bible, when they were written down, were not written with any thought that this will be going into the permanent library of sacred Scripture. The Bible, with all its transformative, healing, and inspirational power - and it is all that - still reflects the prejudices of the people who wrote it (as does our faith; I am well aware that all the people I’m referring to in today’s homily are men).
Marcus Borg puts it this way: “The Bible is a human product (not a divine product) and a response to the experience of the Sacred/God/Spirit/Mystery.” Thus, the Bible tells us how ancient people who took God seriously saw things. The Bible communicates that God is real and can be experienced, not just known. And the Bible is, of course, made up of human culturally-conditioned words. That’s all we have!
So in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden with the serpent and the tree of life, we hear clearly from a people who believed God was experienced. We hear from a people who saw all of creation as teeming with life. We hear from a people who favored a nomadic hunting/gathering way of living rather than a settle agricultural life, thus the punishment was to be banished to the farm and work the land. We hear that knowledge and maturity, necessities for full human life, are often acquired painfully.
We also, should we listen really closely, hear a surprising truth about the persistence and survival of humanity. For what did God say would happen if they touched the tree of life, much less ate of its fruit? They would die. And the Hebrew here is emphatic. Literally, it means, on the day you eat of it, “dying you shall surely die.”
The surprising thing is not that the human beings disobey and eat (one might even argue this was expected; in the ancient Near East, human beings were often portrayed as a rebellious group, seeking to assert their authority over the gods). Rather, the shock comes from the fact that the humans, after eating the fruit, do not die, but continue to live! You might even say they not only survive, but thrive, being fruitful and multiplying. Surviving adversity is what makes Israel who they are and characterizes what humans have always done from “the beginning” (Frank Yamada).
Before offering a few tips on reading the Bible as progressive Christians, let me offer two more ways in which this story of our exit from the Garden is about new life rather than some kind of fall from grace. One, in ancient times the snake was revered and considered a magical animal personifying wisdom and the ability to see all sides of life (above ground and underground). It was a symbol of rebirth because it could lose its skin and grow a new one, like Eve and Adam did. Also, the words for Eve, snake, life, knowledge, and wisdom are all related.
Second, Eve and Adam were banned to the east, which was also symbolic of rebirth because that is were the sun is reborn every morning.
Okay, on to quickly cover four approaches to reading the Bible to help progressive Christians reclaim the book as their own. I am indebted to Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder of First Congregational Church in Thetford, Vermont, for these words. The four approaches are the Midrash Principle, The Good Parts Version, The Box of Lenses, and The Vision Quest.
First, the Midrash Principle. Jesus and Paul were brought up in a Jewish tradition of scriptural interpretation called midrash. The idea that there is only one right way to read a given scripture passage is utterly foreign to midrash. The midrash tradition believes that every interpretation is a gift from God, because God created the mind and enabled it to think up the interpretation and put it into words.
Midrash revels in coming up with creative readings. Entire books have been written with literally hundreds of different interpretations of a single verse. Midrash does not waste time arguing about whether one interpretation is right and all others wrong as so many Christians do. For one thing, that would insult God, who is the source of all interpretations. For another, it would take the joy out of all that creativity. And for another, it is the wrong question. The question that matters to midrash is not right or wrong, but which interpretations are more useful in this situation and which are less useful. The principle of midrash is to put the creative interpretation of scripture to practical use in our every day living. A progressive Christian should read the Bible remembering this, and approach it creatively, allowing the Holy Spirit to inspire intuitive interpretations that can be applied to the matter at hand.
The second approach is the Good Parts Version. The Good Parts Version of the Bible skips over the parts that any given reader finds useless or counter-productive.
Someone who is as sexually obsessed as a seventh or eighth grade boy should probably leave the highly erotic Song of Solomon out of his Good Parts Version, as I learned the hard way in confirmation class this week. People who believe in the loving God of Jesus Christ should probably leave the book of Joshua out of their Good Parts Version, because it is not useful to hear God telling the Israelites to batter down the walls of a town and kill every man, woman, child and animal there. Maybe if you did midrash long enough on that you could come up with some useful interpretation, but why bother? There are lots of other verses in the Bible. The Good Parts Version is based on the principle that you do not have to buy it all, and that it is far better to skip the bad parts than to throw away the whole book in disgust.
Like midrash, this, too, would be familiar to Jesus and Paul. The Jews started disregarding parts of the scriptures almost as soon as they were written. Jesus himself has his arguments with passages relating to the Sabbath and the touching of lepers, to name only two. The Good Parts Version is nothing new. Martin Luther did it. Thomas Jefferson did it. You can do it, too.
The third approach is The Box of Lenses. The image here is of that little box of lenses the eye doctor has. She pulls out two at a time and puts them in the device in front of your eyes and flips them back and forth asking, “Which is clearer? This or this?” There are many different lenses available for reading scripture, and some may make the meaning and usefulness clearer than others at any given time. There are all kinds of lenses that you can apply to scripture: a political lens, a history lens, a feminist lens, a geographical lens, a literary lens, a wisdom tradition lens, a mystical lens, a linguistic lens, a liberation theology lens, and on and on.
The more lenses we have in our box, the more clarity and usefulness we will find in what we read. Also, the more aware we are of our lenses, the more honest we can be with ourselves about the slant we are giving to our reading, and the more respectful we can be of others who see things differently simply because they are looking through a different lens. As with midrash, this can make reading the Bible together much more creative, mutually enriching, and fun, once we stop worrying about who’s right and who’s wrong.
The fourth approach is the Vision Quest. We can just open the Bible and start trekking through, scanning a page or leafing along until something leaps out at us. The reason this works is that we are dealing with a living word here; we are dealing with a real, live power. The same Spirit of God that is in us was in the people who wrote the Bible, and when we come to it on a deep spiritual level it is like hooking up jumper cables: sparks fly, power surges.
If we use these four approaches (Midrash, the Good Parts Version, the Box of Lenses and Vision Quest), the Bible can be a tool for transformation and healing, a source of guidance and power. It was these kinds of approaches to reading the Bible that fueled the revolution of values that took place in the Roman Empire, springing from Jesus and the disciples and apostles like Paul.
The Bible is a tool. A hammer in the hands of a vandal may smash a window. That does not make the hammer bad. It should not lead us to try to build a house without a hammer. Let us take up this tool and go out and use it in the weeks ahead, looking to it for the inspiration we need to make this world a little more like the realm of God that we find described in its pages, a realm of mercy and justice, compassion and love.