Father Mark, Sermons

Listening and Spiritual Growth

Hey! I’m all ears!

Proper 18, Pentecost 14; Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20; 9/6/20

In the spoof, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one of my favorite scenes is when one of King Arthur’s knights, Sir Robin, nicknamed, Brave Sir Robin, comes face to face with the Three Headed Giant.  Brave Sir Robin gives the command to his men:  Run away! 

It not only takes faith to follow Christ, but it takes courage to live out what Paul says of Jesus’ Great Commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.   Life presents us with many challenges, some of which we prefer not to face.  Conflict is often difficult for many of us and learning how to handle it without our anxiety hitting the roof can be a real challenge. 

Jesus’ directive to address conflict also takes courage.  It can take real courage to listen to another—especially when they are at cross ways with us.  A new way of life creates a new way of being in the world.  Instead of using force or deception to manipulate our opponents into submission, Jesus offers us something strangely simple and unique:  being compassionate towards yourself and others having received the compassion of God.   Jesus teaches us that listening is a way of compassion.

Listening seems simple at first.   But listening is one of the most difficult tasks in the world.  Loving by listening isn’t easy because it means that we have to get out of the way.    

First, we have to exhibit a willingness to listen.  Willingness is not always a state of being in which we find ourselves.  Our minds are often preoccupied with tasks and concernsIt’s hard to stop and empty our minds when they’re on cruise control so that we can actually stop what we’re doing and listen to another. 

Another difficulty in listening is understanding the differences in language, gender, culture and so on that uses words in different ways.   Each family system has its own unique culture, created out of two or more cultures of the parents.  Added to this are the various cultures of coming from different geographical areas.  Each varies between the polarities of thought and feeling. 

Gender is often a source of polarities between thoughts and feelings where one person operates from a thinking mode and another from a feeling mode, and most of us are not bilingual in both.  There’s a funny video on You Tube you may have seen that I will list in the bulletin for you to watch to illustrate this.  It’s oversimplified but it does make a point and it will give you a good laugh.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5O11_Ma20Rk

Probably the most difficult issue about listening is not wanting to hear what another is saying.  There’s a chance we might be wrong.  Who likes being wrong?

Not only may we not agree with the content of the other’s statements, but there’s a dynamic called the “story-counter story”where when one tells their story, their story triggers memories of our own stories.     Not only do we recall our own memories that take us out of the listening mode, but if what another tells us triggers a painful memory, we may not be willing to continue listening in order to avoid the pain we continue to carry in our own lives. 

It is easy to project our desires of what we want the other to be and not be, instead of seeing and hearing the other as they are.  We can only listen as deeply to another as we can listen to ourselves.  

Listening demands of us that we be on an intentional path of spiritual growth.  

A respectful way to deal with this without changing the subject or disengaging, leaving the storyteller with a sense of being abandoned, is to simply tell the storyteller that his or her story is calling up memories from our own life and we either need a moment to recover or need to stop listening to this part of the story at least for now. 

Listening is a spiritual gift—not only for the story teller but also for the listener.   In order to listen to another we have to be able to face our own wounds that are also in need of healing and allow God to heal us.  Rare is it that human interaction only benefits one of the two parties. 

It’s probably no surprise to you that listening to a family member is often more difficult than listening to another outside the family.  Family relationships can become very sensitive because our family members see through us as we really are.    They experience all of us, the light and the darkness, not just the good parts as others outside our family see.   Our persona covers the things we do not wish for others to see.  But the family sees it all.

Jesus suggests we attempt to work our problems out privately instead of bringing others into them.  Sometimes friends and family become involved and the chaos becomes more elevated and expansive fomenting into  the resemblance of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.  Jesus said if the two cannot be reconciled, take it to the community so the elders can decide, as well as judges that might be appointed in some communities.  In my mediator training we learned to suggest to the parties involved that mediation is a far better method because you still have some say in the matter.  If two people go to a judge, they lose control of the outcome by a judges’ our council’s decision. 

Finally, I want to reference verse 19: “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”  The English word, “agree“ is not accurate.  The Aramaic word, nistwon means worthy of or deserving, not agreeing.   It means the prayer of a group of people or a congregation will be granted if two among them can be responsible for the things they are requesting.  

If our prayers are congruent with the will of God, then they are granted.   The idea of prayer is not to pray for what we want as much as to want our prayer to reflect the principles of the Kingdom of God.  Therefore when two or more are gathered in his name—for his purpose, which is for our best interests, then God moves through us who are open to His will. 

Listening to others requires that we are first able to listen to God and ourselves.  God relieves us from our internal interruptions so that we become able to discover the sacred Trinity of the other, God and ourselves. 

Listening to others opens us to the Mystery of God.  Try it this week.

News

When a Blessing Comes Across Your Path, How Will Others Know Unless You Tell Them?

This morning as I was driving to the office I saw Leland.  Many of you know Leland.  I was delighted to see him for the first time since he has been recovering well from COVID and has been able to begin to work again. 

As I pulled the truck over to the side of the road, Leland came over and a twenty minute conversation began.  I obviously cannot tell you what Leland said as that would be inappropriate.  But what I can tell you is that he told his story of COVID in the context of his faith and how his faith helped him to work through the illness—how God brought him through it.   Both of us began to share more stories of faith when the presence of God manifested in our lives.  I observed that one faith story would open a faith story of the other and the exchange continued to expand the circle of Life that encompasses all of us. 

What impresses me about Leland, is that he is anything but timid when he tells his faith story.  But in not being timid, he is anything but arrogant.  Leland is one of the most humble people I know.  One thing I do know is that God has a hold of that man.  When one is held by God we are confident and humble at the same time, something the human ego cannot accomplish.

The other thing I realized how the Spirit’s presence manifested and expanded within me in the hearing and the telling of the faith stories.   I felt strengthened and an inner quiet at the same time.  Sometimes the faith stories would end in silence because the closer we get to God the more we discover that there are no words to describe the experience.   The words, “peace”, “joy” and others seem to fall away empty in comparison to the experience.   

I wonder in the scope of the each day, what percentage of our time or conversations involve telling our faith stories?   Many of us are timid, and anxious about telling our stories, perhaps feeling a lack of competence in the area.   This is an unfortunate mistake as St. Paul discovered when he said in I Corinthians 2:  When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

It doesn’t matter when we’re telling our story if we fumble looking around for words, or hesitate, or aren’t as polished in our presentation as a PhD theologian.  We have a choice whether to challenge ourselves to get over our fear of inadequacy of telling our stories, or even if they reveal that there might be a weakness in our faith somewhere.  We all have our weaknesses and there’s no reason to be ashamed.  Shame died on the cross and it’s quite absurd to give shame any power over our lives because it just keeps us enslaved and burdened instead of free.   I remember the quote from the comic Pogo many years ago:  We have met the enemy and he is us.  My greatest challenges in life are the ones that exist between my ears. 

It is especially appropriate now to hear and tell faith stories as they will cut through the isolation that the COVID event has created and refresh us.  God stands between two individuals directing and enhancing the spiritual connection between them breathing life into each as they hear and tell.  The Spirit works like a Trinitarian mystery as the bonds grow deeper and stronger and we feel the Divine Life flowing through us. 

Here’s my challenge to you—actually it’s God’s:  Choose someone daily to contact and hear their faith story and tell one of yours for five minutes.  Do this for a week and note what is happening in your spirit.  Tell others of the benefits of this practice. 

Enjoy (“In joy”),

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Worthy

Worth describes something of value.   We value that on which we spend our time, energy and resources.  This is a stewardship practice but I want to take a different angle for a moment.

I often run across individuals that will confide in me that they feel unworthy in God’s eyes and in their own.   The world can bruise us up sometimes and if we’re not careful we can translate this experience and believe that the way we are treated determines our value.  Where we especially vulnerable to this sense of a lack of worth is in our weaknesses.   I ran into this again a month ago when I was studying for my HAM license.   The old “tapes” and memories came out when I was struggling to comprehend the math computation and memorization.   I finally lost my composure, got up from the chair, and walked outside, steaming. My anger emerged from my feelings of vulnerability.  All of this is to tell you how vulnerable I felt as I regressed to the memories of worthlessness as I struggled in math at a younger age.   After working through it all, I went back to studying.  And by the way, I passed the exam last Saturday. 

We all have places within ourselves where we can feel backed up against the wall—where the Sirens that drove Ulysses to the point of insanity, attack us.  We call them demons.  It doesn’t matter how much we understand what form in which they manifest.  What matters is that we know that from time to time we come face to face with them.  No one is exempt.  It’s a part of our humanity that we are faced with which voice we’re going to listen to:  the Voice of God or the voices of the demons and the source from which they came.  

Think about this:  Jacob in Genesis 32:10, quotes, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which you have showed to your servant….”   The word, “worthy” in its Hebrew understanding means, “small or insignificant.”  It is word of comparison such as between a peasant and a great king.   Jacob isn’t struggling with his sense of self-worth, he has just realized the greatness of God and how insignificant his desires and plans are in light of God and God’s action in history. 

When we realize God’s immanence in, around, and through us, we indeed feel overwhelmed, similar to that when we’re in the countryside and look up and see the trillions of stars decorating the carpet of the sky.  Being in awe might be a better word combined with wonder

When we realize that God is this close to us, which can be interrupted by the events of the world around us, we can feel God’s breath massaging us—in mind, body and spirit.   When we realize God’s immanent presence we already know that God hears our prayers and has already responded.   Worth is realized when we become conscious of the immanence of God’s Presence.   What’s more wondrous, is that when we realize our worth to God, we become both joyous and humble at the same time.  We don’t have to prove to anyone how cool we are.  We already know because we know where “cool” comes from. 

At times like this, when we’re under the COVID cloud, it seems the demons come more often.  So when those demons come around harassing you, tell them to shut up, and find your prayer place and be still and know….   God is already present waiting for us to show up.

Peace be with you,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Please and Thank You

Please and Thank You.

“What’s the magic word?” I was reminded by my mother and father as a young one.   They did well teaching me manners.  Of course it’s up to me to follow through with this. 

Asking for something, whether it’s help, assistance or to be “rescued” out of a situation involves a sense of vulnerability.   We, as human beings, have different levels of comfort with being vulnerable.   Asking another at a meal to “please pass the salt,” is a low risk experience whereas, “I’m in a financial bind, can I borrow $100, raises our anxiety level because of a dual whammy on our pride.  First, we feel “weak” or “less than” for being in the situation in the first place and our sense of worth is shaken.  Secondly, if the person denies our request, we often feel a sense of embarrassment or rejection and even worse, isolation, because we’re not sure how we’ll get out of the bind we’re in.   

In a more serious example, I can only imagine the sense of isolation of those who suffered in concentration camps in Germany or Russia during World War II and under Lenin and Stalin before and after.   Imagine praying every day to be delivered and if you made it through alive some four years later, you would be delivered as the Allies came through Europe.  It’s easy to understand why faithful people under great hardship came to the point of wondering if God existed, or worse, rejected them.

Unfortunately, we project this vulnerability of the fear of rejection or abandonment on God.  If so, we can become hesitant to ask for divine help because we fear that it may not come. 

Let’s take a look at the word, “please.”  Taken from a Hebrew Study by Chaim Bentorah, looking at Psalm 40:14, we find David in a lurch, praying, “Be pleased, O Lord to save me….”   The word, “please,” in Hebrew means to “take pleasure in, delight in or to be satisfied.”  

David approaches God, not by begging or groveling, but realizing that the nature of God is not apathetic but rather, deeply caring.   When we were young, and really wanted something we would beg for it by asking “Pretty please with sugar on top.”  David knows that God does not need to be enticed or convinced to lend a divine hand.  God’s nature is to act in our lives and that God takes pleasure (i.e. is pleased) in this.    God is not a curmudgeon.  God’s pleasure has saved my bacon more times than I can count or remember.   But it is important to remember that God is not a celestial bell hop who is to jump hither and yon to meet our demands.  

God intervenes or helps when God takes pleasure in it which means when it is in the context of God’s will.  The Hebrew word, ratsah, reveals a sense of submission to the divine will. 

Our asking God to act in a certain way may or may not give God pleasure.  There are times when God’s pleasure is to be present to us while we grow through a great difficulty that would give God greater pleasure.   I remember our seminary chaplain preaching that “God is not a God of pain relief.”   Our being formed into the image of God in which we were created to be gives God the greatest pleasure of all.   In our age of the infantile ego of wanting immediate gratification, this lesson waits to be received.   We all want God to “give me a break” so as to make things easier for us.   God loves us enough not to submit to that role or to our whims.  

Imagine what the world would be like if the population acted like God should submit to their wishes.   This is equivalent to about a two year old mentality, known in mental health fields as narcissism.   Come to think of it, look around at the state of things today and the results of this infantilism are evident.   Just watch the news—but not too much of it because it’s toxic as it’s often created by narcissists.  Focus on God instead.   

God is with us all the time.  It behooves us to check the gray matter between our ears to clear out all the misconceptions that God and life is to revolve around me which actually blocks us from experiencing the Divine Presence in the here and now.   The ultimate purpose of life is to be One with God, not to get our way.  The part of me that wants my way is the part of me Jesus is talking about when he says, “Deny the self” and “follow me.”   Following Jesus means to become One with him.   Being One with God, pleases God the most.   Come to think of it, being One with God pleases us the most as well. 

Have a “pleasing” day.

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Diversity

I am wondering what reaction each of you had to the title of this journal article above—and what your first thought that came to your mind was.  The word, “diversity,” has probably been used more than just about any other word in the English language over the last decade.  Defined according to Merriam-Webster, diversity is the condition of having or being composed of differing elements or variety.  I find this interesting because it leaves up to the reader to determine the criteria of what these differing elements of variety are.  I could easily choose “left-handed” as a criteria for I am a southpaw for the most part.  Growing up it was difficult sitting at school desks that were created for those “right handers” who didn’t give it a thought because they weren’t left handed.  But there are all sorts of categories people use to delineate and focus on their differences. 

Another unexpected use of the word, “diversity” is in how I will use it to describe the town I live in and love.   I’ve lived in a lot of small towns in my life and anyone will tell you that it takes twenty years or more to feel like you’re a part of the community.  In Luling, it’s taken less than the four years I’ve lived here.  People are friendly here and in this way they are not diverse.  I can’t stop to talk with almost anyone here if I am I expected somewhere else because if I do, I’ll be in a twenty minute conversation.   Now the COVID experience has cut down on much of this to our chagrin (not diverse here either) and all of us are non-diversely asking the question, “When is this thing going to be over?”  

The first place that I experienced diversity when I came to Luling, was in the church I serve.  Looking out over the congregation I saw men and women (notice how I said, “men”—as there are more men in the congregation than most churches field and in this way we are diverse).  There are young and “mature” of age, high school educated and post graduate degree educated; rancher/country and teacher (town); some who will sing and some who dare not sing; those who can’t stand the hymns and those who like them (about 50-50 on any given Sunday); those who are good with their hands and those whose talents lead better with their minds.   Notice how I haven’t yet said “Republicans and Democrats” as we don’t speak of this much as there is a God who loves us all on whom we’re trying to focus . 

In the community the same diversity exists but we can add different denominations and those who do not attend church at all.  There are those who have their own businesses and those who work for others or for themselves alone.   The personalities that exist in the community are quite unique and varied, each having their own sense of humor, interests and ways of speaking and communicating—and ways of whipping up some barbeque, while others have a knack for “smoking” meats.   One item I have noticed after living in the country and city-suburbs is that there is a great diversity there.   I have noticed that country people appear to be less self-conscious about being themselves than city folk do.  City folk by in large tend to be a bit (or a lot) more reserved that country people who rarely file off what I call their “rough edges.”  I generally know what country people are thinking because they aren’t afraid to tell me straight out without being rude about it.   City folk, might think that country people are rude in this respect, but they’re really not.  They’re just being open and honest even if their direct way might sting a little.   Country people, especially Texans, value independence, which can be diverse from some city people who might desire conformity more.  

I have purposely avoided using the term, “race,” as I believe the nation and the church have been politically harangued and manipulated by it over the last five or more years.  Race is one of the ways we are diverse, but only one.  Unfortunately racism exists due to a myriad of reasons as stereotypes are easily formed.  Whether we check or act on those stereotypes that might have us forget to address the dignity of every human being is another matter.  Stereotypes, as behavior, can be unlearned.  But the core of any stereotype is one of trust.  A human being looks at another thinking, “Can I trust you?”  Of course, we sometimes forget the other side of the question, “Can you trust me?”  If not, why not?  Trust is a not a given.  Trust has to be earned and exhibited through character and action.   These questions transcend race and places us face to face with another human being who is diverse from us, not only in race but in a plethora of ways. 

Prejudice spans more than race.  Prejudice spans the masculine and feminine, young and mature and other dichotomies.   When Kathy and I get into a tiff, it can be because I am prejudging what she’s going to say from past experiences instead of hearing her in the here and now.   Anxiety, the fear of the loss of something, is generally at the core of this projecting our thoughts on the other.   When parties can drop their anxiety and begin to listen to each other one on one then hearing, seeing and understanding might begin.  No human being can speak for another, even if we’re from the same race.

Speaking of the here and now, there’s another factor about diversity that is transcended by personal responsibility.   That is, I am responsible for my choices and the consequences of those choices as others are responsible for their choices and consequences.   There’s no changing this.  It’s a law of physics—or Natural Law, if you chose to use the philosophical name for it.   

I have strengths and weaknesses.  Others have theirs.   Perhaps by listening to honest dialogue free of manipulation, we can support each other from time to time.  This doesn’t mean to be responsible for others but being responsible to them to treat them with dignity.  Not treating others with dignity reveals that I have lost my own.  All of this revolves around an underused word today called, “humility.”   Humility means to be “of the earth,” which means I’m not above or below the next person.   Jesus’ Golden Rule goes a long way here.

The ultimate form of diversity is the Holy Trinity.  The ultimate form of unity is the Holy Trinity.  In the Trinity, the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier (the One that makes us Holy, in the likeness of the Trinity) are united as One with varying spiritual functions that makes us one with God, ourselves and one another—in this order.  There’s no way I can be at one with myself without God.  There’s no way I can be one with you without being at one with myself. 

I heard an Army Lieutenant say from experience how his platoons was made up of very diverse people but they all “bleed red.”  And this is the most important similarity that overcomes any diversity. 

Come to speak of it.  Jesus bled red for us.  I guess that Lieutenant knew what he was talking about.

Jesus:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This is the hardest work in the universe to learn and practice.  We have to love ourselves first by allowing God to love us or we’ll never get to the “neighbor” part of the commandment.

Yes, we are all diverse.  So what.  God made us this way.  It’s not a big deal unless we make it so.  When we learn to love ourselves as God loves us we’ll learn to respect our neighbor.  If we want a relationship with our neighbor, both parties will need to prove their trustworthiness.  Of course, forgiveness has a part to play in all of this too. But that’s a story for another time.

God help us.  Amen.