Spiritual Practices

  • Beyond Financial Anxiety

    blogpic tithingA sermon preached on Luke 16:1-13 on September 17-18, 2016

    In 1989 I was ordained and moved to Detroit MI for my first call. I was serving an urban congregation and lived in the parsonage or house next door to the church. I was so excited after 4 years of college and 4 years of seminary, to make a real salary. I was going to buy my first car, start paying off student loans, purchase a professional wardrobe,ge t some furniture, and decorate my little house like a real adult.

    I quickly discovered that doing all of these things on a salary of $17,000 was going to be difficult, if not impossible. Even with a parsonage, it was a struggle to meet all my needs on this amount of money; and I became racked with anxiety about not being able to pay my own way.

    To make it worse, before I left seminary, I attended a workshop on tithing—giving 10% of my income back to God through the church for the mission of the Gospel. I couldn’t make it on $17,000, so now how was I going to tithe and live on $15,300? Oh, and did I mention I was getting married the following year? I thought earning a real salary was going to be awesome, but instead I had a higher grade of financial anxiety. You cannot serve God and wealth. What was I going to do?

    In Luke 16:1-13, Jesus tells a parable about a dishonest manager who also seems to have high financial anxiety and worry about not having enough. Unlike a positive parable that shows us how to behave, like the Good Samaritan, this chapter of Luke contains Parables of Judgment—how NOT to behave given our financial anxiety. The Dishonest Manager has been caught squandering his bosses’ income, most likely in finding ways to line his own pockets. Now he’ll be left without a job and no means of livelihood.

    Instead of this crisis leading to repentance and positive behavior, he uses his deceptive and dastardly ways to make friends with other dishonest folk, ensuring someone will help him once he’s cast out on his kiester. Misery loves company, and so does dishonesty and fraud as it turns out.

    Then we come to the very puzzling, vs. 8, where Jesus talks about using dishonesty and the ways of the world to secure a place in “eternal homes.” Something is amiss. We are used to Jesus welcoming the lost into the kingdom of God, but such a welcome causes a transformation from dishonesty to honesty. We hear such a story later in Luke 19, in the story of Zaccheus, the tax collector. His encounter with Jesus causes Zaccheus to return four times what he has stolen, and to give half his income to the poor, NOT to make friends in heaven with continued dishonesty.

    My colleague, Pr. Richard Mueller pointed out to me and I agree with him, that “eternal homes” in vs. 8, is not the best translation. Keeping in mind that Luke is writing to a Greek audience, the word for “homes” could also be translated as “shadows.” Make friends by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal “shadows”—or to hell in other words. A Parable of Judgment. You cannot serve God and wealth. This makes much more sense since the very next parable in Luke 16 is about the rich man and Lazarus where the rich man fails to help the poor, starving Lazarus who begs outside his gate. When they both die, Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man goes to hell. By positioning these parables together, Luke wants us to know that the rich man will find companions already in the eternal shadows—this crooked manager and his dishonest friends.

    It turns out they’re all in good company when it comes to financial shenanigans.
    • Amos 2 reprimands Israel for “trampling on the needy…practicing deceit with false balances...buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
    • The Pharisees bent the law so they could collect nice fees for things like unlawful divorce.
    • As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are reminded that Martin Luther protested the sale of indulgences designed to make money off of Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness.
    • Recently Wells Fargo bank has been in the news for opening unauthorized accounts and charging customers extra fees.
    • Maybe we too, are tempted to live in the financial shadows and fudge just a little bit on our taxes or on our expense account, engaging in shades of dishonesty when our financial anxiety gets the best of us.

    You cannot serve God and wealth. Luke’s parables of judgment in Luke 16 call us to repent of our service to wealth and to instead trust in God to provide all we need and use our resources to help the poor.

    So how do we do this given our real financial anxieties? In 2nd Timothy St. Paul reminds us that there is only ONE God –there is only one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.

    Jesus has already paid the price and secured our future –to live within the embrace of God’s love for eternity! Jesus paid this price, not just so we can have peace in death, (and pie in the sky bye and bye), but so that we can have peace in this life here and now, freed from all of our anxieties. Complete trust that God’s hand is in my life—every detail of it—including my budget, is the kind of faith to which God calls us and Jesus Christ won for us.

    There are two spiritual practices that help me manage my finances and my anxiety. I don’t exercise these spiritual practices perfectly, and I need God’s forgiveness and help everyday when I flunk. I’m sure many reading this practice these as well, and I would love to hear your testimony in the comments!

    The first spiritual practice that helps me worship God instead of wealth is gratitude. When I wake up in the morning and I put my feet on the floor for the first time that day, I try to remember to say, “thank you”—one word for each foot on the floor, so that my first thought of the day is to thank God for the gift of life and all that surrounds me before I even stand up.

    This practice led to saying “thank you” to God more frequently throughout the day, and at night when I looked back over my day. Keep a journal by your bedside and write down that for which you are grateful. What new additions can you add each day?

    Over time, I noticed an internal shift when a destitute person asks me for help; the first time this internal shift happened several years ago, I was standing in front of a Thai restaurant in the University City Loop several years ago. A woman asked if I had any change and instead of getting that uncomfortable-guilty-stingy-shameful feeling, I gave her some money, and as I did so, a new thought popped in my head, “God will give me what I need.” It came as a gift of faith; it was not something I generated myself.

    Two weeks ago, I was on my way to Saturday evening worship and I had one of the red bag lunches with me (that the church I serve prepares to give to homeless people). I stopped at the bottom of the exit ramp, and an old gentleman was there with a sign. I told him I didn’t have cash, but I did have some food to eat, and he said, “well if you gave me money, I would buy food with it, so thank you!” Even he practiced the spiritual discipline of gratitude.

    The second spiritual practice is the one I mentioned at the beginning—tithing. Remember that $15,300 I didn’t think I could live on aftter giving my tithe? I was taught in the tithing workshop that when I give God my first fruits—with gratitude—God will provide what I need—not all I want, mind you—but what I need. I confess to you that I did not believe it. I did not trust God to provide what I needed because I had a lot of financial anxiety. But, I thought it was part of my job. So after my first paycheck, I wrote out my 10% check to the church—not as an act of faith—but because I thought I had to.

    A week and a half later, I was out doing my first Communion visits to the homebound. It was a Tuesday and I was on my way to see Gladys Steinheiser, who lived the furthest distance from the church. I looked at my gas gauge and it was below a ¼ of a tank. I was completely out of money and payday wasn’t until that weekend. As I looked at my gas gauge, I thought to myself, “I won’t be able to do any more visits this week since I am almost out of gas and I’m out of money.”

    I arrived at Gladys’s house; we had a lovely visit and shared the Lord’s Supper. She walked me to the door and as I turned to say goodbye to her, she handed me an envelope and said, “Here, this is for gas.”

    I’ve been a tither ever since! I got in the car and I said to God, “Ok, I get it!” and that’s freedom from anxiety!

  • Congregational Transformation

    blocpic congregationaltransformationwordcloudI am working on Certificate of Spiritual Direction at Aquinas Institute of Theology and am writing a research paper on Spirituality and Congregational Transformation. In part, I am wondering what spiritual practices enable traditional church folk to become open to change in their congregation, and engage in relevant mission with Millenials, the “spiritual but not religious”, and others who are disenchanted with institutions in general and organized religion specifically. I interviewed two pastors who have led successful transformations in a congregation, and also worked as consultants to help others do the same.

    Both consultants said that the lay leaders, as well as the pastor need to be engaged in their own spiritual practices on a daily basis. There are a whole variety of spiritual practices across denominations and cultures, but the most important ones include some form of the following:

    • prayer
    • living in the Word or Bible study
    • living in community—like a small group—where honesty and vulnerability are expressed, and genuine love and active care for one another is experienced.

    When the pastor is willing to be appropriately vulnerable in sermons and teaching about his or her own challenges, the lay leaders are more willing to do so in their small groups, committees and teams. This kind of heart-to-heart culture in a congregation is what fosters authentic community, which is the basis for a mission focused on sharing God’s love with others.

    These spiritual practices and the genuine community that grows from them, help people realize that the church is not an institution, a building, a certain way of doing things, a power structure, a place where we consume services, or a place where we get what we want, but rather, the church’s purpose is to share the life-changing love of Jesus Christ in and with their community and the world.

    When congregations are asked what they want in pastor, they usually list off skills: preaching, leading worship, pastoral visitation, teaching, administration, and so on, but they never mention spiritual practices or depth. After hearing this list of non-spiritual functions, one consultant then tells church boards that they are missing the most important question to ask a pastor or pastoral candidate: “What are you doing to deepen your relationship with Jesus, so you can help us do the same?” The board members’ response usually is, “isn’t that assumed?” And the answer is, “no!” Pastors spend a lot of time doing the tasks to keep the institution functioning rather than focusing on their own spiritual life and equipping the laity in deepening their relationship with Jesus.

    It turns out that the only path of congregational transformation is the same as it is for personal transformation in the faith: spending time with Jesus in prayer, in Bible study, and in community so that we are continually drawn out of our self-focus into the love of God, and the mission of the Gospel to transform the world.

  • Discipleship Defined: The Tortoise and the Hare

    blogpics thetortoiseandthehareI shared this message on 4/10/16 with Zion Lutheran Church in Ferguson, MO as they enter a pastoral transition.

    When our children were little, we loved to show them Living Books on the computer. This was early in the tech era and these books came on a CD. We could click on different parts of the page for some action to happen, like birds singing, the doorbell ringing, and so on. Our favorite Living Book was based on Aesop’s Fable, The Tortoise and the Hare.

    You know the fable, the Tortoise and the Hare engage in a race. The Hare is over-confident in his speed and he gets distracted during the race. He forgot to eat, so he stops to eat breakfast, he takes a nap, and he stops to tell on-lookers how great he is. Of course he’s so distracted and full of himself that the Tortoise crosses the finish line while the Hare is racing to catch up. At the end the narrator asks the crowd around the finish line, What is the moral of the story? The crowd pipes up with
    The journey is the reward?
    • Don’t act like such a big shot?
    • Always eat a good breakfast?
    No, says the narrator, Slow and steady wins the race!

    I think the disciples in Jesus' third resurrection appearance described in John 20:19-31, are learning some of the same lessons as the Hare in Aesop’s Fable.

    Peter and the disciples are at a loss; they don’t know what to do. The resurrected Lord has appeared to them 2 times, Jesus has breathed on them the Holy Spirit and sends them out—As the Father sends me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

    There it is. There’s the call. The disciples are sent out, scars and all, with a Gospel to proclaim, sins to forgive, peace to offer, and a church to build—the only problem is they don’t seem to know how to get started. They’re at a loss for what to do, exactly. Following Peter’s lead, the disciples go fishing.

    Ironic, isn’t it? It was not long ago that Jesus called them away from their boats to fish for people. But now, despite the miraculous resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the disciples have returned to their old way of life. They’re almost like the Hare in the fable—the disciples are easily distracted from the path that Jesus has set them on. Instead of sharing the incredible news of God’s power over death, they stayed hang up a sign that says, “Gone Fishing.”

    As a congregation, you may feel like the disciples in this passage. You have a mission and ministry in this community, but now you’ve entered a time of pastoral transition, and you are still grieving the loss of a very beloved and key member. You may feel at loose ends—at a loss for what to do, what’s going to come next, what the future holds. What’s the next step and how do we take it?

    We can feel this way in our personal lives as well. This last year, I have been unsure myself of what God wants me to do. My husband and I were working very hard at new mission development and we had to stop due my chronic migraines. I was at loose ends—I was not sure what to do, what was going to come next, and what the future was going to hold.

    Our temptation in these situations of uncertainty is to join the disciples in going backwards—to re-tread the past—to go back to what we were doing before, rather pay attention to what new thing God might be doing. I would encourage you to resist this temptation because you’ll notice that this did not work for the disciples. They were experts at fishing –and they fished all night and caught nothing! They’re totally flunking. Going backward hardly ever moves us forward. We can learn lessons from our past, but our future is not there.

    But then the story in John shows four practical ways to move forward on the path in front of us, even when we don’t know what to do, nor what the future holds.

    1. Jesus gets the disciples set back on the right path by appearing on the beach that morning. He invites them to cast their net on the other side of the boat—we know that the sides of the boat are port and starboard, but I might call this the forward side instead of the backward side of the boat. And they caught 153 fish—it strained the net, but it didn’t break!

    It’s an odd number- 153. It doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible, so why 153? One hundred fifty three is the known number of species of fish during the first century! Jesus did call them to fish for people, so perhaps this is John’s way of foreshadowing that the good news of Jesus is to be proclaimed to all “species” of people to the ends of the earth. Everybody’s in! The net won’t break because God can hold us all! You are in! Ferguson is in! The journey is the reward—and being part of God’s great plan to love and redeem the world is blessing enough! You may be in transition, or at a crossroads, but the mission is the same—reach everyone with God’s love no matter what. The journey is the reward.

    2. Then the funniest part of the story comes—Peter is fishing naked, and when he sees Jesus, he puts on his clothes to jump in the lake and swim ashore. Don’t we usually work while clothed and strip down to jump in the lake? (In the first century the one who saw someone naked was dishonored, so Peter is actually honoring Jesus by putting on his clothes, but it seems all backward to us!) But the point is, Peter is naked. John wants us to see Peter in all his vulnerability. He denied Jesus three times, and even though Jesus has given him a new mission since the resurrection, Peter has reverted back to his old profession and he’s failing miserably at it.

    Jesus sees right through Peter—he can put his clothes back on, but none of us can hide ourselves from God. Jesus sees us and knows us in all of our failings, fears and falling backwards. So stop trying to hide. Don’t act like such a big shot. You’re not so bad God can’t love you and you’re not so good you don’t need Jesus! Peter gets to Jesus as fast as he can—he got this part right! Come to God in prayer, talk with Jesus throughout your day—rant and rave if you need to, cry if you feel it, dance when you’re moved—just don’t run the other way from Jesus because he already knows all of who you are and all of what you need and all of what you’re capable of. Don’t be such a big shot—join Peter and come to Jesus as fast as you can. Take it all to the Lord in prayer.

    3. In the midst of this complete, stark-naked-knowing, Jesus invites Peter and the disciples to join him for breakfast on the beach. Jesus feeds them, body and soul with the physical food and the spiritual relationship they need to run with perseverance the race he has set before them—to carry the good news of God’s love throughout the world. Always eat a good breakfast. We can’t survive on this journey of faith, this mission of good news without proper nourishment. We need to be fed and loved at this table, where Jesus appears to us in Communion—our breakfast on the beach—to be loved, forgiven and strengthened for the day, even and especially when we don’t know what’s coming next. Always eat a good breakfast physically as well. We can’t carry out the mission of peace and love when we do violence to our own bodies by over-functioning as if the kingdom depended on us while not taking care of ourselves! This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.

    4. Jesus re-establishes a relationship with Peter and all the disciples based not on their good behavior, not on getting everything right, but based on love. Peter’s 3-fold denial is redeemed when he affirms that he loves Jesus 3 times–which he can do only because Jesus has already loved and nourished and forgiven and blessed him. It’s not just about how much Jesus loves us, it’s about how much we love Jesus! Slow and steady wins the race. Take time to experience Jesus’ love and let Jesus know you love him! Slow and steady wins the race. You don’t have to rush to prove yourself. You don’t have to rush to find an interim. You don’t have to race and around and make sure everything is done just so. It’s about love; it’s about being as much as doing. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Order your life around love: love of God, love of each other, love of all 153 species of God’s people, love of your community, love of Ferguson.

    Even when we don’t know what to do, our faith gives us the daily and weekly practices we need to remain faithful in the in-between times of transition. I was off work for a year—but I knew I wasn’t forgotten, because like all of us, I ‘m part of God’s mission in this world, part of the 153 species! I came to Jesus in prayer, I ate a good breakfast and came to worship and Communion, and because church’s like you asked me to preach, I knew God still loved me, so thank you, Zion! Thank you for helping me.

    God loves you Zion as an important and valuable part of God’s mission in this world. The repetition of your faith practices will serve you well as you use them to discern the next task, the next month and the next chapter of your life together! All you have to do is the next right thing. So fear not, Zion! And remember that

    • You are part of the 153 species that God loves, so the journey is the reward!
    • God knows you fully and completely, so come to Jesus in prayer and don’t act like such a big shot!
    • Nourish yourself in worship, Communion and in your physical well-being - always eat a good breakfast!
    • Your mission is all about love-how much God loves you and how much you love God, so remember that slow and steady wins the race!
  • Stepping Up

    blogpic womanonstairsFor the last two months, I’ve been in physical therapy for both of my knees. I’ve been experiencing pain going up and down stairs accompanied by a crackling, crunching sound. Welcome to the 50+ club. Apparently women’s knee caps are more prone to misalignment. The goal of therapy is to first strengthen the muscles around the knee to hold the knee cap in the proper place and second, to stretch the tight muscles along the outside of the quads which, when constricted pulls the knee out of alignment. We have also used tape to try and hold my knee cap in place for 48 hours at a time.

    In order for these therapies to work, I need to do a regimen of exercises everyday – strengthening and stretching, building and loosening, pushing forward and letting go. If I strengthen without stretching, the muscles up my leg still pull the knee out of alignment. If I stretch without strengthening, there’s not sufficient muscle to hold my knee in place.

    In addition, I have to pay attention to how I walk up and down stairs – keeping my feet straight, pressing with even weight, stepping with intention—no more dashing up and down stairs in a hurried jog or a happy jump. The daily exercises to strengthen and stretch help me to be present to how I move my legs and feet throughout the day.

    What a wonderful metaphor and pattern for our daily spiritual life. We have exercises that help us strengthen our faith like prayer, meditation, contemplation, devotional reading and more. In and of itself, these practices do not make up a full spiritual regimen, however. We also must engage in stretching and letting go of the places where we hold tension, control, or rigidity. Releasing to God’s care the outcomes, events and people over which we have no control is a second and necessary part of our spiritual exercises.

    If I strengthen my relationship with God through daily spiritual practices, but don’t allow myself to be released from that over which I desire control, my ego can pull my soul out of spiritual alignment. If I let go of all my tension and control needs, but don’t also engage in strengthening my faith through prayer, meditation or other practices, I am flapping in the wind and blown off course by whatever whim comes my way.

    Like physical therapy, both of these spiritual emphases of strengthening and stretching, building and loosening, pushing forward and letting go, invite us to pay attention to how we move through the day. Rather than dashing around in a hurried flurry, we can step forward with mindful intention—both in body and in spirit.

  • Success Through Surrender

    Single Golden Leaf FallingThe only way I know how to change behavior is to change behavior: make a different choice in the moment. This is difficult in a culture bound by addictive patterns fed by self-reliance. Addict Nation author Jane Velez-Mitchell asserts addiction is not just about the usual—alcohol, drugs, and gambling, but that top addictions in the US include prescription pills, technology, shopping, and food (fat and sugar). Dr. Mark Hyman argues that sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine because of the way it lights up the reward center of the brain. We probably all have some kind of addictive behaviors, making it challenging to change any unhelpful habit.

    In my experience, the harder I try to change my behavior on my own, the more difficult it becomes. We live in a culture that idolizes hard work, never giving up, pushing oneself beyond previous or reasonable limits. When I exercise on the eliptical machine at the YMCA and stop to sip water, the digital read-out urges me, "keep climbing." We live in a "keep climbing" culture, which is why it's hard to accept that often times, success is found not in trying harder, but rather in letting go.

    The moment of surrender is the weakest moment for a human being– an emptiness that admits, finally, that I cannot of my own will and power, do something different, create something new, change my behavior or become a deeper more whole person on my own. Ironically for Christians, this moment is also our most powerful for we become open to the movement of God. As the Apostle Paul says, "For whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). We surrender to a power greater than ourselves, allowing this power to work through us to effect changes, newness, and behavior beyond what we can do on our own. This is the basic first step of any 12-step program. I visited an AA meeting 14 years ago, and what the speaker on Step 1 said still sticks with me: it's not about trying harder; it's about admitting that we can't do it all.

    On our own, we're stuck in unhealthy behavior, be it eating or drinking too much, using technology to avoid intimacy, and other cyclical patterns hurtful to ourselves or others. Surrendering our weakness to God, we are more powerful than ever through the great I AM, allowing God, the universe, the creative Spirit and power of life to work through us, fill us, use us, change us.

    How does one do this on a daily basis—moment by moment? How does this God-consciousness permeate our being so that discernment of a power beyond us is ever-present on our mind and heart directing our thoughts and actions? The answer is the same as the joke about the pianist rushing down the street asking a New Yorker for directions: "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" New Yorker: "practice, practice, practice!"

    How do we develop a daily God-consciousness? Practice, practice, practice. It's why we call prayer, meditation, and other disciplines Spiritual Practices. We're always practicing, we never arrive. Time with God in prayer each morning sets the stage for the day. The actors are Jesus and the Spirit, the props are the circumstances of my life, the script is revealed as I move through the day as I continually listen to God the Director feed me my lines. It's a relationship with the inward presence of God; a listening inward to the voice of the Spirit, rather than outward. It means a slower pace, a response not a reaction, a thoughtful, measured, centered pace to life.

    Through such practices, a God-consciousness can become our daily companion, our daily script, our daily desire. Listening for God's voice and direction in the quiet of the morning enables me to hear God's voice in the noise of the afternoon. That the day is not up to me is pure freedom when I let it go. I am not side-lined, but through Christ I then become a valued actor who gives voice to the Spirit. Indeed, God's grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

    Photo Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_tuchkay123'>tuchkay123 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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