Thoughts on the Fall

My favorite Episcopal communion liturgy is Eucharistic Prayer C. It not only acknowledges that humans and our earth are but a tiny part of creation, but it also elegantly encapsulates the Biblical story. About the Fall, it says:

“From the primal elements you brought forth the human race and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.”

Dwight Zscheile’s March 1st sermon elaborated on the themes of Prayer C: purpose, trust, betrayal, and conflict. The sermon put the Fall into a relational and communitarian context. In return for giving us cognitive superpowers, God entrusted us with the purpose and responsibility of stewarding the little blue jewel on which we live and all the creatures on it, including ourselves. Our stewardship responsibilities have placed boundaries on us both collectively and individually. We are relational beings, and we can’t have successful relationships with ourselves, other species, our earth, or God without limiting our behavior.

And there’s the rub. Homo sapiens seem to be hard-wired to hate boundaries. The very powers of imagination that allow us to conceive of nations, science, and art compel us to imagine what things would be like on the other side of our boundaries. And those imaginings are exactly what got Adam and Eve into trouble, and which get us into trouble. With the serpent’s help, Eve imagined how great it would be to have God-like knowledge. We imagine things like how great it would be to have sex with someone outside my marriage, how great it would be to have that house (or nation) across the way, or how great it would be to pay back those people who insulted my father (or blasphemed my religion).

And so we blow past the boundaries that keep our relationships healthy, and in doing so we betray the trust that God and others have placed in us. Our abilities to imagine better worlds and better lives lead us to make great advancements, but they also lead us to do selfish and hurtful things.

I think a useful Lenten reflection is to examine your internal dialogue and identify the thoughts and behaviors that hurt and enhance your relationships. What are the healthy boundaries that we should impose on ourselves, and what are the unhealthy boundaries that keep from us deeper and better relationships? For example, you might think, “This spaghetti is overcooked!” but do you really need to tell that to the person who cooked it? Or you might think to yourself, “There’s somebody who looks troubled. Maybe I should say something to him.” (and you probably should.)

What are your thoughts on relationships and boundaries, and where God is in them?

Ron Matross

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Creation

In her Sunday sermon “Creation,” preacher Blair Pogue made the following points about the first creation story in Genesis (1-2:4a):
The story causes her to picture God as an artist
This passage is not a scientific account, but a story that addresses important theological questions: Who is God? What is God like? What is the nature of the universe? Who are we in relationship to God?
This passage was first told orally, and then written down when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. It was written to address feelings of hopelessness and despair (“Where is God?” “Does God still care about us?”)
God created something out of nothing.
God called everything God created “good.”
We are part of an interdependent web of life.
Do any of these points resonate with you, and if so, why?

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Generosity

We can all imagine ways in which the world could be a better place. One attractive image is the community formed by the early church: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32a, 34-35). In other words, these followers pursued the way of Jesus through generosity to each other; no one was needy because those who had more shared with those who had less. However, this inspiring story also raises a crucial (and challenging) question: how can we follow such an example?

First, remember the primary reason to be generous: love. These followers were not motivated by fear or guilt or obligation, but by the power of God’s love, which they then embodied by their actions. Reflecting on God’s generosity to us helps us to be generous to others. The earliest meaning of “generous” in English is “of noble lineage”; generosity is a divine quality that we share as children of God. It is part of the Christian family’s DNA .
Second, consider the many ways to be generous. At first glance, the story in Acts reinforces a natural tendency to assume that generosity means contributing money. Indeed, monetary contributions are literally costly and, often, truly sacrificial. Such giving can also be a spiritual discipline, as it establishes our priorities: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21), Jesus declares.

Ultimately, however, generosity means giving ourselves—not just our money—to others. The early church behaved generously because they “were of one heart and soul.” We don’t contribute dollars in order to fulfill a legalistic obligation but as our commitment to the well-being of others.

Money is just the beginning. For example, generosity with our time is a deeply meaningful way to share God’s love. We often treat time as a personal commodity which (like money) we spend, invest, waste, redeem, and save. But time (like money) is entrusted to us as a resource to spend generously. Giving “our” time—helping with a project, running an errand, listening patiently—builds community and expresses our divine DNA. In addition, we can be generous with our talents, with our experiences, even with stories of our successes and failures. In all of these ways, generosity means giving of ourselves.

Finally, identify barriers to generosity. I was once asked at a spiritual retreat, “What would your life look like if you were truly free?” I would be more generous because I would be free of fear that generosity will impoverish me. In fact, generosity is not the “cost” of following Jesus but its reward. Generosity characterizes God’s kingdom because, as Frederick Buechner says, “in the long run, there can be no joy for anybody until there is joy finally for us all.” Generosity propels us on this path to joy—and makes the world a better place.

Questions:
1. When have you been the recipient of generosity? How did you feel? How did you respond?
2. In what ways has God equipped you to be generous to others?
3. How could you be generous in a new way?

Barrett Fisher

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Daily Practice: How to be Rich Toward God

Today at St. Matthews we explored the parable of the rich man who decided to build bigger barns to store his bumper crop, only to be confronted by his own mortality and the reality that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”  (Luke 12:13-21).  ( You can listen to the whole sermon at http://www.stmatthewsmn.org/sermons ).   All of us are confronted, both by our desire for “more” –more money, better grades, a bigger house with bigger closets, more caring, more love—and also by the fact that we also have more than enough in many areas of our lives.  In fact sometimes the enormous amount of energy it takes to maintain our stuff seems crazy—is this really the way we were intended to live?

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus teaches us that where our treasure is, there will our hearts also be.  He teaches us how bankrupt a life can be when we have a surplus of possessions but are not “rich toward God.”  But how do we begin to disrupt our habitual relationship toward the stuff of life, and begin to re-orient ourselves toward the riches of God’s kingdom?

This week, August 4-11, we at St. Matthews are invited to do a short experiment in practicing what we explored together in worship on Sunday.

Every evening, for five minutes, we are invited to do the following:

  • Ask ourselves: where did I spend my life today—my attention, energy, resources?
  • What did I think I needed more of to be at peace?
  • Where in my life was I conscious of already having more than enough? What did I do with that bounty today?
  • The point of these questions is not to judge ourselves, but to be mindful of where our life is, where our energy is going.  Try jotting down the answers – a few words or phrases or bullet points.  You might also try discussing this at the dinner table with your family.

Every morning, for five minutes, we are also invited to do the following:

  • Ask ourselves: what would it look like for me to be rich toward God today?  Given the particular tasks and schedule that I have today, what would it look like for me to experience being rich toward God?  Try jotting down where your imagination goes when you ask that question, what comes to you.  You might also try discussing this at the breakfast table with your family.

Everyone is invited to respond to this blog with what comes to you as you do these practices this week.  What surprises you?  Where do you feel God’s Spirit teaching and guiding you as you engage with this practice?

Lisa Wiens Heinsohn

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Spiritual Practice Journal

Every time I pray the Daily Office, something good happens. I know this sounds superstitious, like the Medieval Christian practice of going from church to church to see the elevated host (large wafer representing the body of Christ). At a time when the people were denied communion and hungering for God’s presence and nourishment, glimpsing the elevated host was thought to protect the viewer like an amulet. But I digress . . .

Wednesday morning I was in a Starbucks eagerly awaiting a mocha frappuccino. The crowd of people waiting for their specialty coffees was large. After waiting three or so minutes I pulled out my iphone and tapped the Mission St. Clare app. I began to do Morning Prayer right then and there, in the midst of all those caffeine hungry souls. Back against a window, I quietly confessed my sins. Doing so did not bring me “down.” It actually lifted my spirits, giving me the opportunity to be honest before God, and to start the day with an awareness of the person I did, and did not, want to become.

A high point was the Jubilate (Psalm 100), especially the first part, “Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song.” How easy it is to forget the joy God gives us, the privilege of living life in the midst of and through the power and presence of a merciful and loving creator. I love to sing, especially in my car, and it was good to be reminded that singing was a great way to pray to God and acknowledge God’s presence.

The Jubilate continues, “Know this: The Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his, we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” Knowing who and whose we are inspires confidence and peace. Being reminded that God is in control, and that we are God’s creatures is a good thing. Being joyful, living a life of gratitude, is an intentional spiritual practice.

As I stood there moving through the Office, reflecting on all the words and images that popped out at me in the Jubilate, Psalm 119, and the readings from 1 Samuel and Acts, I heard a woman say, “do you have a friend Blair?” It turns out that the owner of that franchise accidentally made an extra mocha frappuccino. Calling out the name scribbled on my original cup, she gave me the additional drink with the words, “this will help you make a friend.”

Just last week I decided to take some visiting friends from Connecticut to the Como Zoo. We began to drive around looking for a parking place, and I couldn’t believe how many people, especially Hmong men, women, and children were there. I thought it was great that so many people were enjoying the park, but was getting a little baffled as to why I couldn’t find a parking space in the satellite shuttle bus lot. Then I saw a sign: “Hmong Freedom Celebration.” After I dropped my friends off and had driven around for at least thirty minutes, I came across one parking space. When I got out of the car a nearby sign said, “no parking from 10 am to 4 pm.” It was 3:45, and I know the City of St. Paul is in need of revenue. So, I stayed in my parked car, pulled out my iPhone and began to say Evening Prayer right then and there. The time passed quickly, I had some important time for reflection and re-centering (after nonstop socializing with our friends), and I noticed a significant attitude adjustment. I found myself more thankful, open, and relaxed after saying the Daily Office. I smiled at and personally greeted everyone I encountered as I walked through the park. It was a great reminder that the day I was enjoying was a gift, my friends were a gift, and what a joy to be at Como Park for the Hmong Freedom Celebration!

Doing the Daily Office reminds me that I am part of God’s larger story, not a story of my own making. The office grounds me, teaches me, and informs my day. It helps me to notice things and people I might otherwise miss. It reminds me of the life I am called to live, and of the joy and goodness of this life, come what may.
Do you pray the Daily Office? What sorts of things do you notice when you pray it?

Blair Pogue

The Mission Saint Clare Daily Office is easy to use and can be found at http://www.missionstclare.com/english/. There is an app for most mobile devices.

 

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Practicing Sabbath

The last two Sundays, Dan Johnson has led the Adult Faith Forum in exploring the spiritual practice of Sabbath. The following post contains a few of his reflections on the topic.

For anyone wanting an executive summary of the last two faith forums, here it is:

1. Sabbath is a pause in which to remember and delight in the good gifts of God.

2. In a world that is filled with worry over scarcity, the practice of Sabbath helps us be a people celebrating the abundance in which we actually live.

Have you ever had one of those moments in the midst of a busy day when there was a short pause in the action and you had a chance to catch your breath? That’s one of the experiences that points to the spiritual practice of Sabbath. There are any number of examples that support the premise that regular periods of rest are foundational to our reality. Consider the beating of our hearts and that moment between filling and contracting. Or how about that short length of time between exhaling and inhaling? On a larger scale, ponder the harmonic motion of the earth, tipping towards the sun and then tipping away. These are the kinds of things, with inherent periods of rest, that make up the rhythm of our lives and all are essential to our survival.

That there are rhythms in our lives is one thing, but it is still quite a leap to talk about Sabbath as a spiritual practice. Perhaps coming at it from the other direction will help.

The Hebrew creation story in Genesis is poetic in form and mythic in scope. In it we are introduced to God who speaks into being everything that is; light and dark, sky and water, earth and vegetation, sun and stars, creatures of all kinds, and humans. The poem tells us each step of the way God says what was made was good. And when God looks at the entirety of creation, God says it is very good. Then, the poem tells us, God finished what was done by resting. That rest is called Sabbath and it’s spiritual qualities are grounded in this story.

The nature of Sabbath has been the subject of generations upon generations of thinking and practice. I find Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s perspective most enlightening. He asks, “What did God create on that seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose. Happiness and stillness, peace and harmony.” That list of qualities has a transcendent tone, but each one can only be understood in down to earth realities. The invitation of Sabbath rest is to experience these powerful and restorative qualities in the context of our lives.

Jesus says it this way in Matthew 11:28-30. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” The Message

So how does one practice this “unforced rhythm of grace” called Sabbath? First of all, be intentional and ask God for the gift of Sabbath. Notice those pauses during each day that are the opportunities to reflect on what has been done. As you get practiced in these momentary Sabbaths, find a time during the week to recall the moments and celebrate the goodness you find. (Our sisters and brothers in the Jewish tradition have long believed a whole day, Friday’s sunset to Saturday evening’s first three stars, should be set aside for this) Share the time of remembering with another person or group of people. We are after all in this together. Keep practicing this over a long period of time and see how it changes and affects you.

How about you? What do you do that has the qualities of Sabbath? How does it affect your relationship others? with God?

 

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Reflections on the Bombings in Boston and the Life to Which Jesus is Calling Us

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2

Monday afternoon and evening many of us were shocked to learn that two bombs had exploded near the Boston Marathon’s finish line. The Marathon is not only a great event for Boston. It is a great event for all of us who are inspired by the endurance and steadfastness it takes to run such a race.

The Boston Marathon is exciting and inspiring. Runners from many countries and religious backgrounds participate. They are there for many different reasons. Some want to win. Others just want to finish.  Most want and need a challenge. Some are fighting and have beaten cancer. Others wheel disabled children, wanting them to have a taste of what it is like to participate in such an event.

On Patriot’s Day 2013, the same week as the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham Jail, bombs went off aimed to maim and destroy the lives and futures of runners, and those present to cheer them on.  Who did this, and how could they not think about the humanity of their victims, of the lives that would be lost or forever changed?

Two pictures really got to me. The first was of the now deceased eight-year-old Martin Richard holding a sign that said, “No more hurting people. Please.” The second was men and women in Afghanistan holding small, handmade signs that said, “To Boston with love from Kabul.

For those of us in America this is a truly horrifying incident, and something that is fairly rare. For the people of Kabul, explosions like the ones that happened in Boston are a regular occurance.  What is it like to live in Kabul, Baghdad, or Aleppo, and to know that at any moment a bomb could kill you and your loved ones?  What is it like to live in a constant state of fear and uncertainty?  Do you just get numb?  Does your fear come and go?

Jesus of Nazareth was born into a violent world.  The Romans, while contributing to some helpful engineering advancements like roads and aqueducts, were brutal to the non-Romans they ruled. For those who were not Roman, wealthy, or well-connected, life was, in Thomas Hobbes’ words, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

And yet, despite the violence and brutality around him, Jesus continued to preach a message of love, healing, and new beginnings. He lived a life of reconciliation with God and those around him.  He spoke the truth, practiced what he preached, and faced difficult challenges with prayer and courage.  He boldly proclaimed God’s Kingdom, the in-breaking of which he claimed was already in peoples’ midst. In this Kingdom Jesus spoke of, men, women, and children from every imaginable background and stage of life were united with one another in a web of love, affection, and encouragement, as they realized that their deep interconnectedness was rooted in God.

In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote to his fellow Christian pastors who wanted to wait before pushing for civil rights.  He told them that he was in Birmingham, “because injustice is here.”  Further, he made the point that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He could not sit idly by in Atlanta when injustice was taking place in Birmingham. King continued, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Whether that injustice involves the denial of civil rights, or the denial of a safe, secure environment in which to grow, live and prosper, the Gospel of Jesus asserts that all people are God’s children and thus precious to God. Should not God’s precious children in Boston and around the world be able to play on safe streets, to run in races without fear of harm, to live with a roof over their heads, to have enough food to eat, to get a good education, to have the opportunity to work and provide a living for themselves and their families, to live in communion with and learn from people from many different backgrounds?

At an interfaith service in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross in honor of those who died, President Obama encouraged those present to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Let us continue to pray, and love, and listen, and serve, and give and receive hospitality, whatever we and our loved ones face in the days ahead. Let us fight the impulse to live in fear, to hide, to retreat into our homes, to become a military state. Jesus did not promise his followers an easy life.  He did, however, promise that nothing would separate us from the love of God – not tears, not suffering, not discouragement, not difficult questions, not death.

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