Father Mark, Sermons

Stewardship in 2018

As children, we are like sponges, soaking up everything from our environment. Our experiences form our perceptions, beliefs and shapes our behavior. Parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, peers, the media, environmental events all influence us so that our basic understanding of the world and our habits are formed by the end of our 7th year. In the meantime, life begins to rub up against us and challenge our perceptions and beliefs. We usually resist incongruent experiences before we examine our beliefs and behavior because changing our life perspective and habits for the unknown can be uncomfortable—unless over time our original beliefs and behavior create a level of unpleasantness where we realize a change is in order. We learn faith partially by allowing ourselves to walk through the fear holding us to our attachments to people, places, objects and beliefs that hinder us—and Then let go of beliefs and behaviors which no longer serve us to embrace a new way of seeing, believing and acting in the world.

I may have mentioned some of my experience of stewardship before. I was reminded at clergy conference that sometimes we have to hear something 20 times for us to remember and integrate it into our lives. Stewardship of my time and talent has never been a problem for me. I was blessed with a hunger for learning and sharing what I learn. After my graduation from high school I have been involved for at least 24 years in formal education: learning amassing various knowledge and skill sets to enhance my life as a priest and a human being to be able to serve humanity. Sharing time and talents has been a joy and relatively easy for me. Part of my stewardship of treasure has involved investing thousands in these educational endeavors of self-development. In other ways, stewardship of treasure has been more challenging for me.

Church was an early influence that shaped my perceptions, beliefs and behavior. Church was like my second home, a place where I belonged. My dad took me there often and I helped him with various chores around the church. We had a living creche in Advent where we constructed the frame and built walls with bales of straw. We also had to catch the animals for the creche which was a whole lot of fun. Then we took turns dressing up as Mary, Joseph, and shepherds standing in the creche under the evening lights. Sunday evening of the 4th Sunday of Advent we would sing carols and listened to Luke’s birth narrative. I have many warm memories of my childhood. We were given small children’s envelopes with our very own number on them. We put our quarter into them every Sunday that our parents gave us. It was fun giving my offering—I felt a part of the community of giving. During all these wonderful formation experiences there was another environmental current affecting me.

I will preface this with the fact that no one is perfect, including parents: and this has no effect on how much I love and respect my parents. My mother was a product of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and my brother heard numerous stories over and over such as how they scraped by eating beans and wearing hand me down clothes. I didn’t like Brussel Sprouts at that time and I was constantly reminded of the poor starving people in China who had nothing to eat. There were other incidents woven though my early years which transmitted my mother’s anxiety and belief of scarcity into my mind and life’s outlook. Since then, my studies have revealed that anxiety is transmuted from parent to child—even in utero and children absorb our emotional states because they have no identity to differentiate from their parents.

After leaving home, I began to make my own money and my own bills. It had been easy to put the quarter in the envelope as a child because my parents gave it to me. But now, I had to figure out how much went where. Stewardship at the time was a low key endeavor. One gave to the church to keep the doors open. There was a disconnect between stewardship and faith formation. Then came marriage, children, and the increased fiscal challenges that come with it. The following is a fact of life and not a complaint: While in suburbia, I learned that one of the challenges of running a clergy household is that most church members have a much higher income. It was difficult to participate in some activities because we couldn’t afford to keep up with the level of their lifestyle and there were many times where we overspent our budget in order to participate. Relocating to another church can also be costly. When we sold the first home we bought, we lost all the equity we put into it due to a slump in the housing market. By this time the church began to teach about stewardship as proportionate giving, working toward the tithe.

There were many years when I had a lump in my throat due to the fear of how could I manage to be faithful without going into debt. This is when we learned to set priorities. During those few difficult years, we still looked at our income and stewardship proportionately and had to back up our percentage of giving a couple of times. But each year we’d bump it up another percentage point. However, the core issue for me throughout was the parental infused anxiety birthed in my belief in scarcity and fear that God would not provide. My head knew the theology of God granting us abundance. But my mind and feelings feared that we just might not have enough. Relocating to Luling was a blessing. Fiscal changes involved higher taxes and real estate costs, going from no mortgage to having one, Kathy moving from full time to part time work and my change from two income sources to one.

What’s really important to me in this is not the money itself but transcending the fear that plagued my life in the past to be given a heart of gratitude in its place. So this year we will step up a percentage point to 8.2%. The fear still raises its head periodically, but the decision to move through the fear by acting in faith has helped to dissolve it. Peter walked on the water toward Jesus until he began thinking too much and sank due to his fear. Reviewing the salvation of history of God working in my life has also helped me realize that we have been carried this far and God has never let us down. Reviewing one’s salvation history is a powerful antidote to fear. Being delivered from fear into freedom is a part of salvation. I have learned that I need to give in order to discover my identity as a child of God and as a co-creator with God—in order to know in the words of St. Paul: “whose love and service is perfect freedom.”

Will you join me in walking the path of stewardship as a spiritual practice?

Father Mark, Reflections

Part 2:  The Problem of Evil in Mythology

Part 2:  The Problem of Evil in Mythology

Since the beginning of time, cultures and their religions have tried to account for the presence of evil and its destructive forces in nature.  Turning on the news leaves little doubt that there are destructive forces in the world and it seems as if sometimes seems as if some are possessed by a devil.   Sanford writes that both Analytical Psychology and mythology share a common view: that autonomous psychic factors beyond conscious control afflict persons or groups which are both destructive to themselves and others.  Also, outside of physical reality there is an inner spiritual reality.  This line of thought runs counter to the prevailing world view based on sensory experience which limits itself to the material world.  Instead, present day culture believes that the evils of our time do not exist in the human soul or spiritual sphere, but have political or economic causes, and could be eliminated by a different political system…does not want to see that the enemy is to be found in the devils and demons in himself.

The late Morton T. Kelsey, Episcopal Priest corroborates Sanford’s premise that at the origins of evil and the reality of a destructive principle: …secular man in this century has been brainwashed by materialistic thought.  In a rational and materialistic world, there is no place for such a principle of destructiveness.  It is neither rational nor material, and so it cannot exist. If one is to consider the possibility that evil is something more substantial than just the absence of good, then he has to overhaul his whole world view, and this is a very painful and difficult task. It is better simply to deny the reality of any such principle out of hand. 

Early Christian heresies of Gnosticism and Manichaeism project a split between good and evil, the spiritual as good and the material world as evil.  American Indian mythology was perplexed at the Christian idea of a satanic being.  They accepted it as a fact that human beings combine in themselves both good and evil, and did not need to invoke the idea of a devil to explain why some people had a bad heart and some a good heart.  Mankind has a dual nature.   Most mythologies have two assumptions: the autonomous power of evil that is beyond man’s control and there is a balance of opposites in life or polarities, such as light being opposed by darkness.

In-depth psychology accepts the reality of the dark side to human nature that can refuse to be assimilated into the good.  If we deny the possibility of evil in ourselves by trying to be better than we are (loss of humility) then we risk that evil may run rampant through us because what we are unconscious of can control us.

Next:  Evil in the Old Testament

Reflections

The Shadow Knows…

Oftentimes I find that the older books I’ve read in years past actually have a more profound grasp of the subject matter they address.  One of these texts is by the late John Sanford, an Episcopal Priest.  I read his book, Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality, many years ago.  I recalled Sanford’s work in the context of the tragedy at Sutherland Springs.  I’ll be reading and reflecting on this work in future editions.  One thought that Sanford conveyed is that wherever there is evil, there is suffering.  I ponder if the converse of that statement is true.  Perhaps our culture is looking in places for answers that have none to offer.  Perhaps a greater understanding of what evil is and proven ways of addressing it (today’s image of best practices) might be worth our while to explore.  Sanford addresses the history of an understanding of evil in the Old Testament, New Testament and in-depth psychology.  I find the connections between in-depth psychology and the biblical understanding to be quite fascinating.

More to come.

May the peace of God pervade your entire being.

Fr. Mark

Sermons

Proper 27- A Veterans Day Observance, Matthew 25:1-13

The parable of the wise and foolish maidens surprised me as I never have juxtaposed marriage and its similar image of being “married” to the military before. Being in the military is like being married—once committed you’re in it.

The preparation for a wedding in the Middle East symbolically represents the preparation and training that a civilian goes through after signing the dotted line on the enlistment papers. Your life is no longer your own. The soldier, sailor, airman or Marine becomes a servant. Most weddings take place in autumn or winter in the Middle East as the growing season is over and more time is available to spend what can be a week-long series of ritual events. Candles and lamps were used to provide light and would be procured in preparation for several months beforehand. Weddings begin when all is ready, not by chronological time, and can be delayed until the late evening hours.

Jesus tells the story about 10 bridesmaids. Only half of them made the preparation to obtain and bring enough oil for their lamps. The other 5 expected to be able to find some when they arrived in town only to find the shops closed. Lamps were necessary as processions would go throughout the town down unlit narrow streets. One could not participate if they did not prepare enough oil to provide light.

Preparation is a key word paralleling this story and the lives of veterans. Veterans spend much time in preparation and training for the difficult and often multifaceted work that they volunteered to embrace.
This reveals a basic truth that unless one invests in the will to act, nothing is gained and failure is imminent. This is both true in the military and the civilian world. But it is also true in the spiritual life.

Unless one practices stewardship of time and energy investment, one does not grow spiritually. God did not create us to fit His life into ours but Jesus came so that we might learn and practice how to fit our life into God’s in order to receive our true nature. It takes intention, time and practice. It also takes a willingness to journey within to discover who we really are and the God who waits for us in the depth of our being.

The greatest virtue that the veteran embraces is embodied in the words of Jesus in John 15: Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends. It is important to realize that Jesus was not a victim but that he chose to hand his life over. Veterans lay down their lives for their fellow veterans and country if the situation necessitates it. There is no greater act than this. One hands his or her life over so that others might live.

There are many levels of handing one’s life over. A loss of personal freedom where the veteran was told where to go instead of having a more pleasant choice. Or putting oneself in harm’s way with unpleasant consequences besides being a casualty and the ultimate sacrifice.

When veterans are discharged and make the adjustment—the sometimes long, tedious and difficult adjustment to civilian life, many of them, from my experience as a therapist, enter what I call, their second deployment. This second deployment involves adjusting to the civilian world, but for some, the adjustment is made more difficult because they are still living the memories of their previous deployments either physically, psychologically, spiritually or any combination of the three.
The explanation of these three domains is beyond the time we have here to address.

But the experience of the second deployment is known not only by the soldier, sailor, airman or the Marine, but by their families, friends and sometimes neighbors as well. This is why it is important not only to recognize the veterans but the family members and friends as well. Notice the proportion of our congregation whose lives are involved with veterans. We are grateful. Thank you.

How do we recognize veterans when and after they return? Our good intentions of honoring veterans may not turn out so well unless we do so with knowledge and insight. Veterans are individuals. And being individuals, each has different needs and outlooks on their varied experience. Welcoming veterans home and thanking them for their service is generally, a more sound approach than emphasizing that they are heroes, even though they are. Not knowing the individual veteran’s mind, emphasizing that they are a hero may not be congruent with their experience. When one suffers from moral injury, PTSD and other factors, being called a hero may feel incongruent to a veteran and lead to feelings of alienation. We have the choice also to serve by making sure that our intentions are clear so that our gestures are helpful to veterans first instead of the temptation to make us feel good.

Both Jesus and veterans model the mission mindset of a servant. We would be good to emulate them.

Father Mark, Reflections

Wait Until You Are Clothed With Power From On High

And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. Luke 24:49
The disciples were not yet ready to go out into the world. Jesus told them to wait until they were clothed with power from on high. What is your favorite clothing outfit? Perhaps you choose your favorite clothing because of color, fabric, style of cut, how well it allows your skin to breathe when the heat becomes oppressive? Clothing covers us. Swaddling clothes were used to keep infants feeling secure, as if they were being held. What is it like to feel like that we are being held by God? There are no words to describe the bliss. Clothing is the first thing other people usually notice about us. Hopefully there’s more engagement for our true selves to be mutually revealed. What kind of clothing is Jesus talking about? It’s obvious that he is talking about Holy Spirit—the Presence of God, not just with us but within us so that In Him, we live and move and have our being (Acts 17).

I have to be honest and I wonder if you can identify with me? Some days I’m not clothed very well before I go out into our community and into the world. Some days I am less grounded than I would like to be. Other days, perhaps a little restless. Other days perhaps a little irritated. Then I often make the mistake where I choose not to wait until I allow the Spirit to create a new set of clothing for me. Other times I have to ask for this when I’m on the run because responsibilities dictate that I must respond. But Jesus is very clear: we are to wait until we receive Power from on high that is now given to us from within. Else we will respond (more so react) instead of the Christ within us responding. Which will give the greatest quality of response?

This waiting to be clothed from on high applies to any and every day situations we might encounter. At this moment, I would like to clothe ourselves appropriately to address another tragedy—this one being closer to home: the church shooting in Sutherland Springs. How can we respond with spiritual insight that will transcend our egoic fear?

Waiting to be clothed with the power from on High means that we take enough moments to be aware of how we are reacting or responding within. Reactivity comes from our ego. Not that this is necessarily bad but unless guided by Holy Spirit, we can fall into fear and anxiety, which is not the better condition in which to respond. Wisdom and peace are far better guides when we are clothed from on High.

Data from 2010 reports that there are approximately 25 million plus churches in Texas. The probability that a church shooting would happen in Luling is beyond minuscule in nature. Yet wisdom dictates that we be responsible in order to be aware of our surroundings for prevention purposes and seek a comprehensive safety plan. Now the trick comes in: how can we be aware without being afraid? The last thing I want to have happen is for us to gather to receive Word, Sacrament and fellowship and for us to forget to wait until we are clothed with power from on high so that nothing will ever separate us from our experience of the love of Christ (Thanks, St. Paul). We want fear to be released so we can focus on where Life is to be found.

But there’s even a greater calling in all of this. I believe that God is calling us to a mission here. Perpetrators of events such as these are alienated and mentally ill—metaphorically, not being clothed by the Spirit at all. Most of all they are spiritually sick. I read research recently that reveals that every measure of human well-being across all ethnic and racial lines is highly dependent on the stability of the family system, specifically if the marital executive system is healthy. Poverty, educational development, psychosocial development are dependent on the stability of the family system in which children are raised. This doesn’t mean that marriages or the people in them are perfect. Far from it. Yet it only takes a little yeast to leaven the whole loaf. Spiritual integrity is the core of a healthy family system. I’m not saying that everyone has to be married to be healthy and happy. But the research reveals that a spiritually and mentally sound family system works like an incubator to help children develop healthy lives.

Another part of mission, I believe, is how we respond to events such as these on a day to day basis. When we’re at coffee or lunch with a friend, talking on the phone, how to we dialogue about tragedies such as this? At what level of awareness do we converse and respond? Jesus was pretty clear about this. We’re back to waiting to be clothed with power from on High again. We can focus on many things such as how horrible it is, the details of the events, politics (God forbid!) and so on. Perhaps a better discussion would be to wrestle with the question: “How do I respond to evil? An example of a real core of our mission is to perhaps pray for the perpetrators. Not so easy when we’re angry. But by prayer for our perpetrators, our anger will soon disappear and so will our fear underlying it because we will have been clothed from on High. We can pray for perpetrators or our perceived enemies without allowing ourselves to be victimized by them. Self-care and self-defense is part of the Christian tradition. Perhaps we know a family who could use a little extra kindness. Christian mission isn’t about fixing people or their situations because we can’t. That’s above our pay grade. It’s about helping others to heal by being Christ to them.

It all comes down to allowing ourselves to be clothed from on High. The Holy Scriptures are the greatest fashion book in the world.

Peace,
Fr. Mark