Father Mark, Sermons

Tests

The author facing his test of his fear of heights

Proper 8C; Pentecost 5; Genesis 22; 6/28/2020

How many of you have never ever experienced test anxiety?   Life is full of tests from the time we learn to walk,

maintaining our balance, learning how to tie our shoes; learning not to sneak the cookies from the cookie jar,

school tests, achievement tests, tests to certify licenses and certifications for our vocations.

Remember your driver’s test?   Athletic and musician tests of skill and endurance.

Then there are those tests we experience in relationships which involve a dual focus.   We are tested in being a means of grace for living with other’s faults while at the same time attempting to reduce the number of our own faults so that the relationship can grow. 

We are in the midst of numerous tests to our lives such as how we face the COVID pandemic.

So when people ask me does God test people, the first thing that comes to mind that is that life itself is a series of tests or if you’d rather, challenges.   Forks in the road are a common occurrence.  Every choice we make is in some way a test.   Tests are a part of our spiritual, mental and social development.

Our choices in response to life’s tests questions come from the authority on which we choose to base our lives. 

The authority we choose determines the guidance we receive and values inherent in that authority by which we make our decisions.  The God or gods that we choose determine our response to the tests we take in life. 

There are courses in test taking—how to take tests—that I have attended.  Sometimes it can be helpful to learn how others take tests.  The story of Abraham is one example.

Abraham discerns God’s calling him in a dream to walk a three day journey to a land called Moriah, which 1000 years later would be the location of Jerusalem and the Temple.  He hears the words, take your son.  The words in Hebrew do not indicate a command but more of an appeal to sacrifice Isaac.  This request gives Abraham a choice without the fear of guilt for not doing so.  This must have been mind boggling and agonizing for him. 

Abraham left and lost his home and extended family in Haran for the promise of a new land and extended family and nation that would become as numerous as the stars. Sacrificing Isaac, would nullify everything that God had promised.   It didn’t make any sense.  Since guilt had been removed from the equation, Abraham faced a free choice to walk away or sacrifice Isaac.  Abraham’s response indicated the depth of his faith.  The angel’s intervention, and the provision of a ram indicates God’s distaste for child sacrifice which was a common practice during those times.  

The story may also reveal how difficult discernment can be.  Understanding God’s movement in our lives can be difficult to ascertain.  Cultural influences can contaminate our receptivity.  In Abraham’s case, child sacrifice was not uncommon in those times.  Could the child sacrifice in the culture have influenced Abraham’s dream?

God’s loving corrective nature adjusts our vision and behavior as we move along.    Discerning unexpected changes in direction is not out of the ordinary.  Often times when God calls us to move we aren’t given the total blueprint in how everything fits together and how the finished product will look. 

Following the trail for the Holy Grail takes time—the Grail meaning Christ himself.  The Grail is the vessel that contains the presence of God.  We are now that vessel.   

The three days in the story did not represent a specific 72 hours but signified a long period of time.  

How difficult it is for us to take “three days” to sit in prayer and to listen for the voice of God moving in us and to move out in the direction we are being led?  

I believe we’re in a similar situation to Abraham in that we are being tested during this COVID pandemic.

Our “three days” are faced with the limitations it places on us and how we are to respond to those limitations. 

How do these limitations, and the impact they have on us, affect our physical, mental and spiritual lives?  

What message might an angel of the Lord bring to us in the midst of all this as the virus drags on and on and on and on?   As the psalmist (137) said, “how do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” when the people of Israel had been exiled to a different country. 

Our “exile” is of a different nature.    Where in our lives do we experience a sense of exile?    Where do we experience a sense of exile within? 

We as Abraham can respond to God, by saying, “Here I am.”  We’re in this situation we really don’t like. 

What path do you want us to take in our minds, hearts, and spirits?   Help us to listen.  Help us to hear.  Help us to follow. 

Amen.

Father Mark, Reflections

Moccasins are soft

“Judge Softly”

“Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.

There may be tears in his soles that hurt
Though hidden away from view.
The burden he bears placed on your back
May cause you to stumble and fall, too.

Don’t sneer at the man who is down today
Unless you have felt the same blow
That caused his fall or felt the shame
That only the fallen know.

You may be strong, but still the blows
That were his, unknown to you in the same way,
May cause you to stagger and fall, too.

Don’t be too harsh with the man that sins.
Or pelt him with words, or stone, or disdain.
Unless you are sure you have no sins of your own,
And it’s only wisdom and love that your heart contains.

For you know if the tempter’s voice
Should whisper as soft to you,
As it did to him when he went astray,
It might cause you to falter, too.

Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind and narrow-minded, even unkind.
There are people on reservations and in the ghettos
Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.

Brother, there but for the grace of God go you and I.
Just for a moment, slip into his mind and traditions
And see the world through his spirit and eyes
Before you cast a stone or falsely judge his conditions.

Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.

Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.”

~ by Mary T. Lathrap, 1895

The spewing of incivility lately caused me to remember the saying, “Don’t judge a person until you walk a mile in his moccasins.”

As a youngster I was very close to my extended family, uncles, aunts and cousins. It was always a treat when we could visit and play. My dad, uncle, brother and I would go hacking (a low quality of golf). When I got into high school, my uncle and aunt divorced. I was heartbroken. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned why. My uncle whom I deeply loved was involved with domestic violence with my aunt whom I also loved. I was confused. I couldn’t see him doing this. He was so fun to be with and loving to me.

After college, I began to learn about the darker side of World War II. I had known the battles, places, dates and all of this since my childhood as we were given to know the history of the importance of the sacrifices made to put an end of the tyranny and insanity that had overcome the world. Earlier as a child I recall my uncle playing with my battery powered Bulldog Tank I received at Christmas. When he visited, I didn’t get to use it much. But what I didn’t know is that he was a tank commander in Patton’s 3rd Army and one of the conflicts he was in was the Battle of the Bulge. My uncle never talked about any of this except on two occasions when I was in college and both times he stopped before he completed the sentence.

I began to understand the reasons why people do what they do. Just because Louie had “battle fatigue” (a.k.a. PTSD and Moral Injury) didn’t excuse his earlier behavior. I never witnessed the behavior but now at least I understood the inner turmoil that would occasionally explode outwardly from him. My uncle got help after the divorce and we remained close whenever I returned to visit my parents. Had I been where my uncle was from 1943-1945 I have no idea what mental state I would be in. I cannot even fathom it.

Suffering creates a series of inner wounds and concoction of fear and anger that mostly remains hidden to the human eye. Suffering creates a hardness and rigidity within, that we were never meant to carry. When Jesus teaches the Beatitudes (Matt. 5), he is speaking to our need to wear the moccasins of others.

Jesus teaches “Blessed are those who mourn”–blessed are those in emotional turmoil. People who suffer often do not know how to mourn so that they may be comforted and healed within. Jesus follows with “Blessed are the meek”–Healthy are those who have softened what is rigid within.

My uncle was my first experience of learning to wear the moccasins of others. I would see the suffering of others as a priest and intensely so as a therapist. Some of my clients were victims. Some were perpetrators. I learned how to soften my inner rigidity to work with the latter. Both victims and perpetrators tend to repeat behaviors that are driven from their invisible wounds and the rigid places within. When learning their story I understood, the “why” of their history even though not all would be willing to enter the mourning to heal. That remains a mystery to me of why some do and some do not.

It’s easy to live in a small town and to notice the idiosyncrasies of others–their weaknesses while being unaware of what drives them from their rigid places within. We may never know. But this doesn’t keep us from looking for the rigid places within ourselves that react to the rigid places within them, and simply pray, “Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus will soften our rigid places within. And who knows, once our rigid places soften, others may in some mystical way, begin to soften the rigid places within themselves.

What do you think?

I used to own a pair of moccasins. Moccasins are soft and comfortable, much more so that my rigid leather and cordura snake boots. I need the snake boots sometimes. But I think I’ll get me another pair of moccasins. And remember to remain soft within when I am around others who may not be able to be so.

Here’s to being meek, and softening what is rigid,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Praying the Beach Ball

This is in continuation of a June 7th sermon I did on How to Pray.

I remember when my parents would take Steve (my brother) and I to the beach when we were little.  We’d swim and splash around and stand in the sand as the water lapped upwards and rescinded, slowing removing sand from around our feet and our feet would sink a little more into the sand with each wave.  The simple joys of childhood.  I find I enjoy them far more than looking at my cell phone.  There’s something all-encompassing about having water, wind, sand and sunshine awakening your bodily senses and filling you with the Mystery of Life.  That’s something I’ve never gotten from a cell phone.

Then my dad would bring out the beach ball.  We’d bat it around and throw it at each other, splashing, laughing and all that.  One day, curiosity got the best of me and I held the beach ball and attempted to submerge it under the water.  It didn’t work. First of all, it took a lot of energy to push it under the water.   There was some kind of pressure moving the ball to the extent that the ball slipped from my hands and surfaced with great force, like a missile, out of the water, actually rising above it for the moment. 

So as a curious scientist (I love science) always does, I tried again with much more determination and with an adjusted grip to make sure that the ball didn’t slip.  Well it did slip a few more times and I repeated the exercise until I was finally able to hold it steady under the water. 

It was exhausting.  I can’t believe the amount of energy it took me to be able to hold that ball under the surface of the water.  Finally, my energy depleted, I let the ball go and it rushed toward and cleared the surface of the water.

Many years had passed when I began to learn how to practice various kinds of prayer.  Contemplative prayer stood out above the others. It was rooted in the ancients and was all encompassing in its carrying me into the vast Mystery of the Holy One that transcended any words I could find to describe it except maybe for the word, solitude.  But even this word is empty in the attempt to describe the experience. 

While practicing contemplative prayer early on, I recall how difficult it was to still the mind.  As I attempted to relax, allow my breathing to enter its natural rhythm, the contents of my mind became louder, sometimes to the extent that it would be very uncomfortable to the point that I would stop the prayer and go do something else.

Then my mentors would reassure me that all this is normal and not to worry about not being able to get my mind to quiet down.  This was just a part of the journey.  Then the memory of being at the beach with the beach ball “rose to the top.”  My cluttered and pressured mind wasn’t the problem in the prayer.  My cluttered mind was the reason for the prayer.  Whether you have an attic, a basement or a junk room, there’s a lot of stuff thrown hither and thither there.  Our spirits and minds also have a lot of stuff in recessed places that we have forgotten about that takes up space and weighs us down.  Prayer is learning to be still enough for long enough to allow all these beach balls that have consumed our energy and attention, affecting our spirit and behavior.   Prayer is learning to listen deeply to what has been hidden so that it may rise to the surface and be given to God.   Prayer is about becoming free.  As the stuff rises to God, so do we and the Spirit makes a home in all the places within us that were once cluttered with the stuff which encumbers our lives. 

Prayer will first bring discomfort before you experience the Peace of God.  In therapeutic genre, the phrase goes, you have to feel it to heal it.   God isn’t trying to make us miserable.  God is trying to get through to remove the misery from us but we must first acknowledge this before God can act.  This is actually what confession really is.  To confess isn’t a bunch of groveling, and being miserable, beating ourselves up and saying what a horrible person we are.  Far from it.  Confession is simply acknowledging what is, allowing God to be in the midst of us to release us from it and to simply without drama or histrionics, move on.

My mother became an Episcopalian when she married my dad.  But that didn’t change the 23 years of her Southern Baptist history so my brother and I grew up with what my spirituality professor in seminary called, the “lash of the oughts.”  This translated into a lot of beach balls under the awareness of my memory that needed to be released.  Contemplative prayer healed me.  Contemplative prayer is still healing me.  Or perhaps I should say that I am being healed by God through the practice of contemplative prayer. 

So when your mind is racing and you find yourself, stressed, going in circles, feeling conflicted, it is past time for contemplative prayer.  Resisting what’s in your mind just makes it stronger.   Learning to invite God into it all so that it may be removed, well, that’s what works for me.   Records of contemplative prayer reveal that I’m not the only one and that it’s been a practice by millions of Christians before the fourth century if not before.  That’s pretty good research sample on which to verify the practice.

Not to be trite, but prayer is really learning how to play with a beach ball—playing beach ball with God.    We throw the ball to God and God gives us another one to throw back to Him.   Playing beach ball is a lot of fun—joyful in fact.  Contemplative prayer, after we begin to get the hang of it, takes us into the Joy of our Master.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

There are two authors I have used for Contemplative or Centering Prayer.  One is Thomas Keating and the other, Cynthia Bourgeault.  Let me know if you would like more information. 

Peace,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Sermons

Do Not Fear….

Proper 7C; Pentecost 4; Matthew 10:24-39.

I have a question for you.  How do you publish news quickly?  Tell the person to whom you speak, “Don’t tell anyone.”   Word will be around town in a couple hours. 

Luling isn’t much different than Galilee in getting the word out, except for how we do it.  Back then, houses were small and extra room was found by using the flat roof.  People would congregate on roofs and hold conversations to neighbors on roofs adjacent to them. 

I wonder if residents hid by laying down on the roof when the Roman soldiers came to town.  There was probably as much or more fear back then than we experience now, some for similar situations.

What is Jesus’ response?  Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 

A little confused perhaps? 

There is a lot of fear in the world right now.  There are many and different kinds of fear some of them healthy, some of them not.  Fear is hard wired into us as a means of self-preservation.   Fear awakens us to discern and follow a wise course of action. 

During our present situation, most of us have taken great precautions to sequester ourselves from others.   I take it that it is healthy fear that I’ve never wanted to be a pastor in a snake handling church.  But there are times when fear moves beyond self-preservation to inhibit our ability to live.   For example, the fear of failure inhibits people from trying; fear of being hurt, keeps us from reaching out; fear of being alone can reveal a fear of abandonment.  Fear of dying can come from the fear of non-being. 

Jesus speaks of fear—fearing as the disciples what others might do to us if we live out or share our faith.   Jesus is explicit not to fear those who can kill our body, but only the one who can destroy both the soul and the body.   This can be confusing.  Who or what can kill the soul? 

Jesus is explicit for us not to fear death of the body as the body is not who we are. 

The body is only an outward expression.  Jesus teaches us that we don’t have a soul, because who is it that has the soul?  

Jesus teaches us that we are souls.   The Kingdom of God is His present reality within us.  Any teaching that holds that human beings are separate from God places our soul in hell. Separation from God is the essence of hell.

Hell refers in this instance to mental and spiritual suffering, inner torment. 

God does not create hell.  We do.  False teachings can distort our mind, compromise our actions and create a draught in our souls where there is no living water—leaving us truly dead on the inside. 

This is what Jesus teaches to be fearful of—not crippling fear, but awareness of evil forces and false teachings that deny or distort that God and we are one.

I was never made so aware of this soul death as when I did prison ministry. 

There’s a term used in prisons called, “dead eyes.”  Dead eyes is when you look in a person’s eyes and there’s a vacancy, an emptiness, or a crazed look.  Dead eyes is when you cannot find the soul of another because it’s been sealed away in some way.  The severity of this goes far beyond mental illness.  Chronic lawless behavior reveals that the life that was once in the person has in some way disappeared.   Wisdom as a source of guidance and action are replaced by compulsion or impulsive reactivity creating more hell.  Instead of a lake of still water resonating within there are either churning, stormy gales or a dry hole. 

Hell is a place we create when we have lost the presence of God in the present moment.   Metaphorically, this is the Gehenna or hell of which Jesus spoke of the trash dump southwest of Jerusalem when useless items were taken and burned as trash because there was no more useful life within them.

Confessing Jesus means to allow the Spirit of Jesus to live through us—realizing we are One.  Jesus realizes that the world is afraid of Divine Love and will resist it, placing fealty in other things such as wealth, power, government, possessions and other false idols.  By living the truth in love in word and deed, others will sometimes react to us, as if we were transgressing against them. 

The Peace of God is to be embodied before we can be used to be a source of the Spirit’s peace to be implanted in others. 

The peace of God is an inner harmony that sustains us when there is conflict in the world.  At times like these, we must allow God to take us deeper into himself and his peace—a peace that the stock market, politics and other things of this world cannot give, even though the world promises a paradise that only turns out to be counterfeit.

We lose things because we are forgetful and cannot recall where we put them.

Jesus is telling us that we will lose things—people and places too as we continue to make choices about what we regard as ultimate in our lives.  

A question to ask ourselves is:  “What is it that we fear losing most?   Jesus taught us that what we are to fear most is the loss of our soul.  

Fear not.  God has a hold of us and he will never let us go.  Be still and feel the heartbeat of God within your own.

Amen.

Father Mark, Reflections

Zooming Isn’t What You Think It Is

I’ve been into photography since the late 70’s, only getting back into the hobby recently.  One of the tools of the trade that makes the hobby easier is a zoom lens (not the internet social media tool).  

Photography, like most other things, mirrors life—always requiring decisions.   What angle do I choose to look through and use?  Should I through a telephoto lens to make the subject larger, eliminating the surroundings or should I get a wide angle to be able to take in the whole picture?   Sometimes I feel like Tevya from The Fiddler on the Roof:  “On the one hand… on the other hand.”  Life seems to be a polarity of opposite tensions much of the time.   Sometimes, since digital cameras are cheap to use, not having to pay for the cost of film like I used to, I take both a wide and a close up telephoto shot just so that I have both views. 

Jesus did much the same.  On a mountain, he would do two different activities:  he would pray and he would look out over the landscape or the city of Jerusalem.   He focused on both the inner life up close and the wide angle of how he would bring that inner life into the larger world.  Both the wide angle and the telephoto view bring necessary perspectives.  Without both we lack the whole picture. 

When I am alone pondering a course of action, or even with a group, using a telephoto lens to get up close to see what needs to be initiated or solved is necessary to put everything in motion.   This is usually the easy part.  What is more difficult and requires more patience, is to zoom to the wide angle view of things to see how the intended act might create various positive and negative outcomes in the environment at large.  This keeps us from making those “knee-jerk” reactions which most of the time prove to be disastrous.   Taking the time to get the wider and more long range perspective conflicts with our need for instant gratification which is endemic in our culture.   One doesn’t need to look far to see the maladies and suffering created due to instant gratification.   Instant gratification and its underlying anxiety reveals a lack of mental and spiritual development.  I sometimes struggle with it, especially when I am under stress when I seek to sublimate the stress by seeking gratification elsewhere that will not solve the problem.   This is one reason I don’t eat donuts anymore.  There are as many false ways to assuage anxiety as there are people.  We all have our ways of substituting alternatives for instant gratification to decrease anxiety. 

Of course, there’s always the mountain offering us the space for a more telephoto look at our distress, allowing us to sit with our suffering and to invite God into it, seeking healing and direction instead of running down the mountain to seek the next diversion to divert our attention from what is really going on. 

Coping with COVID requires both the wide angle and telephoto zoom approach.   Looking up close to spiritually assess our inner life while using the wide angle lens to negotiate how our decisions of how we live with this unpleasantness helps us to better maintain a rhythm in our home life and the limited way we interact with the community. 

It’s no surprise that depression and anxiety mental health stats are rising and if we’re affected by the same it’s nothing to be ashamed of.   It has nothing to do with a lack of toughness or independence.  It does have a lot to do with loss and the grief therein.   I have noticed a significant drop in the amount of humor I observe and the laughter I hear.   I once had a client in therapy who had high blood pressure.  She brought their blood pressure monitor to sessions and we attempted various approaches.  For the client, the best intervention was laughter.   We tried watching humorous scenes, funny stories and other things which lowered her blood pressure. 

I notice that in my own life, when my spiritual life is in balance, I tend to have a more playful way about me and I laugh more—not an anxious laugh but a belly laugh.  I believe this is because that when I am spiritually centered, that I my fear or whatever else is bothering me dissolves. I John: “Perfect love casts out fear.”   It takes a much greater effort and intention to focus on God now in the midst of COVID-19 and all the political turmoil that comes mostly from the lack of seeing the bigger picture of the wide angle lens.   My father and my uncle taught me to look at the wider picture.   I learned to value the bigger picture when learning systems theory in grad school.   Most of all, I have learned that Jesus was a natural at zooming in and out, integrating the inner Spiritual Kingdom with the outer way in the world.   

Take an up close view:  what do you need most now in the center of your being?   Then find ways to manifest this and to then zoom to the wide angle to see how the Spirit creates your vision to see what is really happening in the bigger picture in the environment around you.  Allow the Holy Spirit to help you blend both. 

Jesus offers us a better way than knee jerk, impulsive living as he is the one who can still the waters in our souls–offering us a full frame life.

Blessings,

Fr. Mark