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.

Peace,
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)

Strangers

My apologies for the long silence…

Each year my parish’s Education Committee (of which I am a part) selects a topic for the adult formation series presented, and this year will center around the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  When I think about my “neighbor” I am immediately drawn to one of the many homeless faces I see day in and out in this city. It seems easy and logical for my spirit to come to that conclusion as “the one in need.”  However, the more I examine this in my mind, the more I seem to be replacing the word “neighbor” with “stranger”.  When you live in a city as vast and diverse as Chicago, this becomes more than mere semantics. I live in a high-rise with over 100 units and barely know the names of 10 people—not including my actual neighbors!  Even after years of attending my church there are throngs of strangers I have never met. I may pass these people in the halls or at coffee hour, exchange greetings… but there it usually ends.  When I realize the frequency and ease of my avoidance of stangers, I am ashamed. I cannot help but think of my mother’s childhood in rural New England in the 1960’s, when they literally knew all their neighbors and a stranger was a very obvious anomaly.

Jesus stated, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35, CEB) and yet in this area, I truly struggle. Could it be that I am afraid of what will happen once I take an introduction to the next level? Am I more concerned with feeling judged for approaching these people than I am for the calling to do so?

In the theological journal “Conversations”, I read a wonderful article recently about this very topic and author Jan Johnson frames it this way, “Who are our strangers?” People appear to us as strangers for different reasons but they usually fit into one of these categories: outcasts, wrong-doers, anyone who isn’t like me and anyone we are tempted to exclude and ignore. She goes on to examine each of these categories, showing us how Jesus welcomed these types of strangers.

My Community centers on the discipleship of Mary, the mother of Jesus and we use her title “Our Lady of Cana.” Hospitality and welcome are embedded in the every ethos of our Community, so it is a painful experience for me when I am confronted by the stranger I have not yet learned to welcome. The saving grace is that the Holy Spirit is nothing if not consistent and will continue to present me with opportunities to grown and share, even as I struggle to learn. For now, I continue to hold these moments in my heart and pray, “May the needy not be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor be in vain.”

Be Bold!

boldIt’s funny where we find a spark of Spirit-wisdom in our normal routines. I happened to catch a recent interview with Yahoo’s new CEO Marisa Mayer, where she recounted the last thing Google founder Sergey Brin told her just before she walked out of his office to begin her new position. He told her, “don’t forget to be bold.” I kept hearing that statement in my head for days, “… be bold…” I too had a former colleague once reminded me that good things can happen sometimes even if all we do is show up, but great things can happen when we take risks– when we get our hands dirty.

Action is at the heart of Christian living. Sure it’s comfortable and sweet to sit and read the scriptures, attending services on Sunday but the true test for our faith, where the rubber meets the road, is in applying the love we learn to the context of the broken world we live in. The first chapter of James poetically notes, “22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1, NIV)

Taking risks can sometimes seem like a scary thing.  I remember a visit to the Grand Canyon, when I was younger, and taking one of those tours down into the canyon on the back of a mule.  The mule walks right on the outer edge of the path, with no railing between you and a much faster decent into the abyss below. While slow, it was a intense ride but the experience was breathtaking– a perspective of that great space you could not have known otherwise.

When I think of the Disciples, after Pentecost, trying to organize and motivate I feel a rush of energy. Everything Jesus shared with them while he was in their company was done so they could share that same love and wisdom with others, not merely with their words but their actions. They must have been a jumble of emotions, fearing persecution and fumbling but alive in the Spirit and longing to bring the love of their master to the world. We are conduits of God’s love and our challenge is learning where to direct that love. The “acts” of the Disciples and the acts of 1,000’s of holy men and women in the centuries after inspire us to truly be BOLD and trust that the Lord will help us, in all that we do.   -Amen!

The Upper Room

I have recently completed my forth and final year of EfM (Education for Ministry), a unique distance learning certificate program in theological education based upon small-group study and practice. During the final class we discussed how we’ve been changed and challenged by our time in the course. Four years worth of study and development came flooding back as we all shared what the course had meant to us. I realized that from the readings, to the group discussions to theological reflection exercises it really was an intense exploration of faith and service, scripture and history. At the start, I came purely with an interest in the academic and was apprehesive when it came to the group sharing, unaware that I was carrying a bag of prejudices and judgement. I found myself so frustrated in the first year by other opinions and theological points of view that I really struggled with wanting to drop it and leave. But, I remember telling myself I had to stick with it– to see if I would be changed. So, week after week I came back to that same room and to those same people and with very few exceptions, I always left changed. My mother is my witness to this fact, as I often called her after each class eager to share some insight or personal revelation I had experienced that evening. My decision to stay and see what would happen helped me understand the baggage I was carrying that was preventing me from knowing God better, through the very people I was journeying with each week. Over time, I was able to put aside that judegment and amazing personal lessons were learned.

Referencing the class, one member remarked that the Lord can do marvelous things whenever a group comes together to seek God, noting the upper rooms mentioned in various passages of the New Testament. Sitting in an upper room of the church week after week, the similarity was glaringly obvious but there was more too it that the location we came to dwell.

From the last supper to the miracle at Pentacost the image of an upper room is potent to believers. If you examine Old Testament discriptions of upper rooms it is easy to deduce their importance. Houses and palaces of the ancient world often created larger, more public spaces downstairs– receiving halls, dining rooms, and kitchens, but upper rooms were often reserved for private and intimate purposes, only for members of the household. Being able to utilize or gather in an upper room of someones home must have been a great sign of closeness and familiarity. Each time the disciples gathered in an upper room it was very deliberate and  they always left changed. Their closeness to one another through shared experiences brought them closer to God. Most importantly, in that quiet, smaller, more intimate space they were able to receive God in both a personal and communial way and God was able to meet them where they were, free from the intrusions of the outside world. In essence, they found themselves in an intimate space where God could be intimate with them. In that same vein, when we can come together prepared to seek God, we can know Him in ways we never imagined. Think about what an upper room in your life might look like. Are they places where you can share your zeal for God with others; places of quiet and intimacy where God can find us? I know I have grown from my time in an upper room and I thank God in advance for the next opportunities to gather together and be changed.

Peace +

The Challenge in Simplicity

Holy week has officially begun and the annual sprint to the finish… or rather, the beginning. As my Rector pointed out, sometimes it’s hard to find new meanings to the timeless story we tell year after year. It’s easy to get bogged down in the superficial and cliched notions of what this season of Easter is all about. I am reminded of my Jewish relatives who also point out their challenge at this time of year as they search for newness in an ancient story of Passover and liberation.

As I reflected on the story myself, I tried to identify key moments that stood out to me of significance. I tried to go into the historical and political components of the story, to piece together a point of view that might adhere to my rational self, but to be honest, my heart kept returning to the same idea. The overwhelming truth that I am loved, unconditionally, and forgiven so that I can know true reconciliation. It’s a powerful message and one that I, personally, need to hear– over and over again.

For me, this message of love and forgiveness is wonderfully shown in the Apostle Peter. A man who deeply loved Jesus yet, even though he believed it could never happen, denied even knowing him at one of the most critical moment of Christ’s earthly life. The anguish he must have felt when he realized that in that moment his fear had overcome his faith must have been excruciating. However, unlike Judas, who let that same shame and sadness drive him to his death, Peter carried on and sought forgiveness from God. Beautifully, when Jesus appeared after his death he seems to restore Peter and name him the rock on which he would build his church. I am always moved by the way Peter fits into Jesus’ story and how much like Peter we are.

The Church gives us a very precious thing in providing us over 50 days to wrestle with the notion that God clarified in the narrative of Jesus, what he had meant from the beginning of our creation– that he loves us and that no barrier exist between us and that love that cannot be conquered. I say “wrestle” with this notion because it’s easy to skim along the surface of the platitude that “God loves us”, but it is another thing to truly grasp the depth of the second half of that statement, that “no barrier exists… that cannot be conquered”. As we emerge from the pensive qualities of Lent, may we find newness in the love reflected in the Eastertide story and may it leave us truly changed.