Surprising Love

Do you ever have one of those Sundays where you are sort of “coasting” along– somewhat unconsciously? You’re present in body but not in mind? Well, that was me recently. My feet had carried me to church, but my mind was a little disconnected… until hymn 469 popped up… go ahead and look it up, I’ll wait. (click here to listen to it)

For you hymnal nerds, it’s a classic by Frederick Faber (1814-1863), titled “There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy.” The melody by Calvin Hampton (1938-1984) is not the most common setting for this text, but its gentle beauty is what first caught my attention. The words, however– those beautiful Victorian prose– are what melted my heart, especially the third verse.

For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. If our love where but more faithful, we should take him as his word; and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord. 

In God, we find a love that knows no bounds. We can experience Divine love which is unconditional and never-ending. At first, that love frightened me. For so long my egoic mind refused to grasp the possibility of unending, unconditional and unbounded love. There must be a catch– you have to earn everyone else’s love, why not God’s too? Everyone else withholds love from time to time– God must also.

These lies we tell ourselves come from being stuck in a worldly view of love. But, as I continue to dig deeper into my spiritual journey, placing myself before God in prayer, in work, and in relationships I find that the attraction and affection we usually operate in is so much smaller than Divine love. Just as the hymn text suggests, God’s love is so much bigger than the typical constraints we operate in mentally. And if we can trust in God and in Jesus, we will find ourselves in a perpetual space of thanksgiving– of gratitude. There is no other place to be, once you have surrendered your constant desire to control and entered into the vastness of God’s love.

And, as a friend pointed out to me, it works the other way too! When we find ourselves in a place of genuine gratitude we can see that we are already immersed in Divine love.

One last thing… on any given Sunday, when feel you are merely “drifting” along, “disconnected”, show up anyway! Where your feet go, your soul always follows and you never know what you might miss by staying home.

Lenten Prayer

Lent is upon us and we are once again presented with a special time for refocusing our attention on the suffering and death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we will be ready to embrace the good news of the Resurrection. We cannot reach resurrection without the full journey to the tomb first. In the Gospel reading from Ash Wednesday Jesus instructs us to pray, fast and give to the poor. While I know most of us are familiar with the practice of “giving up” something for Lent, I would encourage you to go beyond that approach and try “taking on” something as well.

Prayer is at the heart of the Lenten journey and we are invited into many different types of prayer during this season. What better thing to add to your devotion than to experience as much prayer during Lent as you can? This coming Sunday we pray the Great Litany, the oldest piece of extant original-English liturgy we have. First penned by Thomas Crammer in 1544, this prayer is the perfect starting place for Sunday worship in Lent. Every petition in the Litany is a corporate plea, binding us together on a shared road.

Each Friday at Church of Our Saviour we will have the chance to pray the Rosary. This prayer may not be familiar to many of you but it has been part of our Christian history since the 13th century. This memorial prayer is designed almost as a mantra-style prayer– breathing the repetitive Hail Mary’s in and out. It is a beautiful intercessory prayer which provides a space for contemplative spiritual exploration. Even if you have never prayed it before, you should consider experiencing at least once this season.
On Good Friday we will pray the Stations of the Cross (the Way of the Cross), a devotion to the Passion of Christ which recalls a series of events at the end of Jesus’ life from his condemnation to his burial. This prayer is not merely marked by our words but by our movement as we make a procession from station to station in the church, imitating the practice of visiting the places of Jesus’ Passion in the Holy Land by early Christian pilgrims.

Step by step, Lent teaches us many spiritual practices, including letting go– emptying ourselves so we can be filled once again with the Spirit of God. This was at the heart of Jesus’ teachings and ministry. One way we symbolize this gift of letting go at COS is by writing down whatever thing in your life you are ready to release to God onto a wooden slat and dropping it into the fire pit in the narthex to be burned in the “new” fire at the Great Vigil.

There are many opportunities to pray this season, in our private times and in our corporate worship. My hope for you is that you experience the fullness of the Lenten journey and immerse yourself in all this season has to offer. May the Spirit of God in Christ Jesus walk with you as you walk with him– from the desert to the tomb and into resurrection!

Stop. Breathe. Be.

My mother gave me a journal for Christmas. I have to admit I was about to roll my eyes when I opened it because after many failed attempts over the years, I have discovered I do not possess the dedication to maintaining a journal. However, I noticed that this journal was a “mindfulness” journal. Each page provides a prompt, either with a quotation by some wisdom teacher or by suggesting some activity, and then invites you to write about what comes to mind. I was intrigued, so I began with page one.

Upon turning to the third entry, the journal instructs the user to post about a dozen notes around your home and/or office which remind you to “Stop. Breathe. Be.” After about a week, the user was then asked to write about the experience. At first, my OCD nature was uncomfortable at the thought of all these little post-its around my house, but I decided to give it a try. One on the fridge, one at the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, near my bed stand and so one-all over my apartment. Immediately, I felt strangely compelled each time I noticed one of these little post-its. My mind often fills with lists of action items to be completed at my own parish, in my home, and at work, especially in the hustle of preparing for Christmas! But, each time I stopped what I was doing (even for a moment), took a deep slow breath, and focused on bringing my mind back to the present, I felt a sense of peace and even joy. It was remarkable that this small shift in the ordinary could have such a dramatic effect!

Sometimes we don’t realize how not in the present we regularly are, focusing instead on meals yet to be planned, work we have yet to complete, and even conversations we have yet to have with others. We forget that the more we allow our consciousness to drift to the future or the past, the further we are from actually being in the present, from being in reality.

Present-mindedness is precisely what Christmas offers us. The Creator of the cosmos breaks into human reality in the completely ordinary moment of an infant birth. It’s not about the dangerous journey that brought and man and a woman to a manger, it’s not about all the power and healing that will flow through this child when he is grown, it’s not even about the awesome mercy which will be poured out with an empty tomb and glorious resurrection. In that manager… at that moment, it is about the birth of hope. In that small shift in the ordinary, we discovered that when we are fully present anything is possible.

So, just as my little journal activity offered, I invite you to practice present-mindedness this season in whatever way works for you and rejoice in the knowledge that God is fully present with you, and in each moment, anything is possible.

Open to receive. Open to release.

“It is an entirely relational universe. If, at any time, we try to stop this life flow moving through us, with us, and in us, we fall into the true state of sin (and it is much more a state than a momentary behavior). What we call “sins” cannot really separate us from God, because Divine Love is unilateral and unconditional and is not dependent on our receiving it. Rather it is our lonely and fearful illusion of separateness that makes us do sinful and selfish things.” -Richard Rohr

So much of my own spiritual journey has come to revolve around relational spirituality— this idea that all things, at all levels of creation, are in constant “orbit” with one another. It is a pattern of behavior that we see manifest in protons, neutrons, and electrons as well as planets, stars and even people.

What I love about relational spirituality is that through this lens our focus begins to shifts away from the object alone: electron, planet, person and onto the movement between the objects. Just like the planets orbit the stars (near and far and near again), we move in and around one another– and our spirit, tethered to the love of God, flexes and extends as well. There is no need for judgment about this dynamism for it is the nature of things to move in this manner.

This type of near and far, flex and extend, also allow us to understand how Jesus was able to both receive and let go of everything as well, including his earthly life. Cling to nothing for it is given, then taken back, and then given again, the universe seems to say, as does our Creator.

Jesus was a master of this way of spiritual living. He exemplified how to embrace the fullness of what is given to you, and then let it go with the same grace as it was received. There was nothing he renounced or resisted and when we can act with this purity of being, we are finally able to empty ourselves entirely and receive again. It’s an unending cycle which allows Divine love to become manifest in the world.

As Cynthia Bourgeault remarks of the Christ in her book “The Wisdom Jesus”: “Thus he came and thus he went, giving himself fully into life and death, losing himself, squandering himself, gambling away every gift God bestows. It was not love stored up but love utterly poured out that opened the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

May we grow into this way of living, emptying ourselves so that God can fill us again– becoming living vessels for a living Spirit.

Say ‘Yes’ and trust in God – by Katie Spero

In the Gospel this week we hear the disciples say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” When I hear this I think about the upcoming year of Sunday School beginning so soon on September 9th.  I think of Sunday School because I’ve learned over the past year that what can seem a difficult teaching from Jesus for an adult can be seen clearly and confidently by the youth in our atria.  And when I think back to my relationship with the lessons life presented me with as a child I see that the main facilitator of that learning was trust.  There was an unspoken yet bright light of trust that surrounded me everywhere I went, in any situation.  I didn’t need a reason to trust that, whatever happened, all of my needs would be attended to.  I just went through life as if I was cared for, as if someone knew exactly what I was going through at any given moment and knew what would be called for even if I did not.

We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation,” because the longer we live, life’s circumstances often tempt us to lose our trust in God, to live afraid and worried, to lose our hope.  And yet, here is where glory is born and where grace breaks through.  This is how we transform into the best versions of ourselves.  This is how we learn who we came here to be. What may look like a difficult outer life circumstance can be a transcendent inner life experience.  When we say “yes” to God’s teachings we are changed by God Himself, instead of by what happens to us.  In this way all of life lifts us higher and higher towards God’s greatest will our experiences. When a situation was meant on the worldly level to bring you down, God will take it and use it to raise you up.  Temptations to despair are transmuted into the glory of God in the instant that you decide to trust Him.  Not only will He strengthen you to face the day, but He will take control of your inner experience of your life.  He’ll show you the eye of the storm.  This is where I lived as a child, in that peaceful center within, unaware of the storm of the world raging around me.  How much deeper the peace now that I am fully aware of the storm, while experiencing myself unmoved, held in the palm of God’s hand.

Let’s go through life as if we are cared for.  As if someone knows exactly what we are going through, and knows what is needed for the day.  This is the spiritual path.  This is accepting the lesson.

Stopped In My Tracks

My commute to and from work is relatively short– only about 20 minutes, door-to-door. With such a short trip, I become keenly aware of anything that lengthens it. I mean, I’m a fairly impatient person, so anything that causes me to slow down without my consent presents a challenge for me.

This evening my return trip was brought to a standstill by a protest on Lake Shore Drive. My initial reaction was, “…seriously, a protest right during rush hour! I thought they did protests downtown.” My second reaction was, “smart idea, actually, good for them…” even though I wasn’t even sure what it was about.

When I got home I went online to see why the crowds had gathered and I was immediately confronted with a photo of the protesters. The image was an all too familiar one, angry faces, clenched fists, signs raised. But, one thing stood out to me– several signs which read, “North Side Ignores Gun Violence”

You see they were protesting gun violence, yes, but more specifically their goal was to “redistribute the pain” caused by gun violence in this city. I felt that lump in my throat as I gave that a long hard thought.

We can so easily become numb to someone else’s pain… sometimes we even become numb to our own pain. In a city as large and segregated as Chicago, we can indeed turn our attention to our own pressing issues of potholes and burnt out streetlights, while we quietly sweep the violence of the south and west sides of this city under the rug. Even though we feel anger about gun violence, maybe even witnessed a violent act in our own neighborhood, we still view it as an “outside” element that has somehow pushed its way into our typically peaceful streets. “It never used to be like this in our neighborhood” someone recently said to me, referring to the turf wars between gangs. We seem to forget that Chicago has long been a violent place, with the 1990s bringing a level of gang violence that swept through the city like a cancer.

Jesus’ wisdom teaches us that there is no division between God and human, human and human. The only walls we experience in relation to one another are the ones we artificially erect– they are not a natural part of creation. When one person is hurting, we all hurt. When one person is murdered, it is a death we all feel. Or, at least, we can… if we move into the unitive spirit that Christ teaches. The one-ness that God created us to be.

Love leads to empathy. Empathy leads to compassion. Compassion leads to hope. Our relationship with God opens a door to greater interdependence and from that interdependence, we can participate in bringing about a new creation. Pray for peace for those who have lost someone to gun violence. Pray for rest for those who have lost their lives. Pray for healing for those who took that life. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:9)

Pride & Prejudice

I was looking up some information about past Pride parades in Chicago when I came across an article from 2004 entitled, ‘Jesus’ Went to the Chicago Pride Parade With A Very Important Message. The article included a photo of a man, dressed as Jesus, standing in front of the group of anti-gay protesters which are always found at the end of the parade route. They were holding their signature signs with the all too familiar slogans such as, “God Hates Fags” and “Homo Sex is Sin.” This ‘Jesus’ figure, however, was holding his own sign which read, “I’m not with them!” while sporting a rainbow beaded necklace and a bright smile.

Many who come to watch the parade never see the hate-filled protesters which mark the end of the route. This small but vocal group who gather each year, surrounded by barricades and police, are the complete antithesis of what the parade is all about. But if you march in the parade, you can’t miss them. Their cries of anger and judgement can seem quite alarming the first time you experience them–but you can’t help but note the counter-demonstrators which bear signs of love, joy and laughter and who tend to gather opposite them.

That type of resistance in the face of hate is what the parade is all about. It commemorates the weekend of June 27-29, 1969, when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn bar in Greenwich Village, fed up with police brutality and harassment towards the LGBT community, resolved to fight back. This turning point represented the birth of the modern LGBT-rights movement.

I have attended the Pride parade in Chicago for over a decade and a half, marching in many of them in that time, and I can tell you that, at its best, the parade celebrates diversity, inclusion, unity, and, above all, love.

There are churches which choose to join in the celebrations– flying a rainbow flag, holding special prayer services or even marching in the parades. Our own diocese will have a large group marching this Sunday. Many of them wish to show solidarity with the marginalized, to raise up the vulnerable and open their arms in welcome and love to those whom society still oppresses and judges unequally.

Jesus brought a message of radical inclusion. He reached out to those who were untouchable, he dined with those who were rejected and he blessed those whom society condemned and judged as “the other.” He spoke of a divine love that was available for all people, without condition; a love that brings us into unity with all of creation. Jesus was crucified for his message. Judged and condemned, he was hung on a tree to die. Yet, in the face of seemingly unconquerable death, he rose again and empowered those who also walked in light and love to continue the struggle to bring about heaven on earth, through the same love and forgiveness that he embodied.

Each Pride parade offers another opportunity to gather in celebration of love and perseverance. Each Pride month provides a chance to reflect on how we hold those in our world whom others have cast off, denied dignity or killed with hate. In this uncertain time, one thing remains unchangeable. God’s love for us is unbounded, unearned and unending, and has the power to unite us in peace– if we let it. 

The Miracle of Pentecost

Another liturgical transition is upon us as the season of Pentecost begins this Sunday. I’m particularly drawn to this season because there are so many dimensions to the seemingly familiar story of the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus and his Disciples came to Jerusalem, shortly before his arrest and execution, to celebrate the Passover Festival. Seven weeks and one day after Passover was a harvest festival known as the Festival of Weeks, and in the time of Jesus people would have made their way into the city, to the temple to offer sacrifices to God.

I find it intriguing that in the midst of the spiritual celebration of the Passover– the last supper Christ would share together with his followers, a miraculous act of Divine love begins to unfold in an upper room. Then, 50 days later, during another spiritual celebration, those lovers of Christ find themselves back in that same upper room… waiting… longing. Without fail, Divine love again unfolds in their midst and they are, again, forever changed.

The festival of Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birth of the Church, but I think we are often too quick to focus on the imagery of the anointing of fire and the speaking in tongues as the miraculous moment of the story. The true miracle of Pentecost was what took place in the upper room, the Cenacle, before the tongues of fire. As they waited for the Spirit of God, they were becoming a new community. Only when they “were all with one accord, in one place” (KJV) could the sign of God be made visible and the ministry that Jesus had commissioned them to do, begin to manifest in the world.

May we remember, that as we gather together each week as a community of Christ’s followers, Divine love is in our midst. Our ability to live the truth of Christ and reflect his love in the world is empowered by our desire to seek a oneness with God and unity with one another. Then, just as the first disciples, we will experience a spiritual transformation and exit that upper room to truly begin our vocation, bringing the kingdom of God ever nearer.

Br. William White, CMJ

Seeking the Silence

This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit the lakefront, among the dunes of Indiana. Despite my upbringing in southwest Florida, I’m not much of a beach person. Given my fair complexion, visits to the beach usual involved painful sunburns or gobs of sticky sun lotion. But, this time I found myself looking forward to being near the waves and out in the nature of the dunes. With the breeze blowing and the sun nestled quietly behind some clouds, it really was the perfect day for a redhead to go to the beach.

My enthusiasm and excitement were immediately shattered when I arrived to find a tiny strip of beach filled with a multitude of people, all vying for some small patch of sand. It was almost comical. Living on the beach in Chicago, this is a scene I am very familiar with, but out there in the rural quietude of a sleepy town I was honestly taken aback by the throngs of people on this small wisp of shoreline.

With every kick of sand by a passerby and every shriek of delight from a nearby child, I felt my centered spirit drift further and further away. I became emotionally drained and more than a little disheartened. Eventually I nodded off for some unknown length of time and awoke to a much quieter scene. The beach had almost entirely cleared out, and I found myself alone. I could hear waves crashing and the breeze blowing through the tall dune grass, and that same sense of centering spirit returned in me and I couldn’t help but pray.

The experience reminded me of how often Jesus removed himself from the crowds to be alone with God. The crowds were wonderful, full of energy of opportunity to minister, but he needed regular refreshment in a quiet place. Even in this week’s scriptures, after feeding the people, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead while he finds quiet time to pray. In our own spiritual journeys, we discover that silence is a powerful place to find Spirit. It is not merely the absence of noise or distraction, but a thing unto itself. The very space out of which God creates… just is in the beginning. Many spiritual teachers through the centuries have said we must “go to the desert” to commune with God. Only in these places of alone-ness, can we truly open ourselves to the fullness of the Spirit of God and in turn refresh our souls for the journey. Where will you seek silence?

The Insidious Nature of Violence

When I think about the phrase “violence leads to more violence” it seems a distant abstraction. I am not a violent person. I have never really been involved in a physical fight with another, so it would make sense to me that since “other people” cause violence, the circle of that violence is “over there”. I am but a witness to a turbulent time and yes, I have a responsibility to call for justice and peace but I make that call from over here—in my sphere of safety.  What a foolish and egotistical perception. The truth is that violence is one of the most pervasive sides of evil. It sneaks into places you would otherwise not have noticed and creates much of the brokenness in this world.

The recent incident of a school security officer violently throwing a student to the ground and dragging her out of the classroom flooded the media and social networks and caused another avalanche of public opinions. People were rightly outraged at these now all-to-familiar scenes of excessive force, but what saddens me is the way in which we turn our disgust and frustration on one another in the aftermath of an act of cruelty and injustice. The talking heads, political pundits and media moguls often seize on these moments to ramp up the emotional distress of the public, creating a veritable feeding frenzy of divisiveness. Legitimate questions of what happened and how turn to mistrust for all authority and accusations of victim blaming. It reminds me of the way the crowds were incensed by external forces when Jesus was brought forward to be judged. It wasn’t enough that he had been arrested and beaten, he was paraded through the streets and the public was made to despise him.

Violence takes many forms and if we are not vigilant, we may not even see how and where it creeps into our “sphere of safety”, nor will we understand that we can become complacent to its grip within our communities. I was recently reminded that one of the beautiful qualities of the Episcopal Church is that more than our individual relationship with God the emphasis is placed on the community with which we exist. Only together are we the Body of Christ. When it is at its best, the Church is a reminder of how a community can respond in love, grace and mercy to acts of violence and it exemplifies a watchful community who is always examining where brokenness and injustice exist.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus instructed the disciples to be alert and awake, but they quickly fell asleep and danger was upon them.  May we all be vigilant together and remind our neighbors what it means to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry” (James 1:19, NIV)