Daily Devotional: Praying Truly and Living Faithfully

Some years ago I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer.  I think this prayer focuses on the heart of our faith and call to do justice, so I am sharing these thoughts again to help ground us in the trying times we are in.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

JN931 Our Father (The Lord's Prayer)

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

Today I want to focus on the last word of this prayer “Amen”.

amen 1I can’t speak for you, but growing up “Amen” is a word I learned to say at the end of prayer, with little thought for what it means.  Saying “Amen” felt like signing “sincerely” or “yours truly” at the end of a letter.  If I had grown up in the day of cell phones, I think “Amen” would have felt like pushing the “end” button on a call.

I think as we come to the end of reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer and prayers that have pulled us through, it is important to take a moment and reflect on what we are saying when we say “Amen”.

Amen is the transliteration of a Hebrew and Aramaic word that in other forms is often rendered “truly”, “faithfully”, and “securely”.   Its basic meaning is “so be it”, or “let it be”.

The fact Amen is related to words rendered “truly,” “faithfully,” and “securely” suggests to me that in our saying of amen we are making a claim, even if only in hope.  The claim is that in our praying we are being true, faithful, and secure.

amen 2On the one hand we are being true and faithful to ourselves, so that the words we speak are a true reflection of who we are.  This is an interesting thing for me to consider.  Growing up in the tradition I grew up in within Adventistism and coming to faith for myself among evangelicals, there was a big emphasis on speaking to God from the heart, just as you would a friend.   For me, learning to do that was freeing.   I didn’t need to worry about fancy language, big theology, or getting things right.  God knew my heart and knew me.  God would accept whatever I needed to say.  What God sought was my authentic self.

I still think there is some wisdom to this approach to prayer, even if it is not exactly what my prayer life always looks like anymore.  If you read the model prayers of the psalms carefully you will see they show the full range of human emotion – joy, sorrow, belief, doubt, anger, rage, vengeance, love.  Though the psalms themselves are beautiful works of poetry they do not shy away from what often looks and feels like the uglier sides of who we are.

I was speaking with someone recently who shared, a spiritual but not religious person I’d met, about their uncomfortability with the communities focused on spirituality around her.  “It feels like they are trying to appear more together than they are, and just using spirituality to avoid their own less pleasant emotions”.   That is not just true in her community of spirituality, but true all over.   In Christian circles it is easy to overlook the lesson of the Psalms and this call to be true and faithful to ourselves in prayer and present ourselves through prayer in ways that are escapist, leaping outside ourselves beyond our amen 3experience of pain, rather than truly bringing our pain or even our temptation directly to God, just as it is.  The example of extemporaneous prayer from the heart is one way we free ourselves to do this type of making space for uncomfortable emotions in our spirituality.  For, as I wrote about earlier, when we suppress those emotions they do not go away but simply take on lives of their own which, like the wild beasts of the wilderness and the Tempting Enemy of the desert which Jesus confronts, can trip us up.

This way of hearing “amen” can make it not seem to fit in a pre-written prayer like the prayer Jesus teaches us here.   But we can pray such a prayer truthfully and faithfully.

In fact, I have grown in the last few years to appreciate the way in which praying the ancient words of others, especially as a part of my mindfulness practice of Christian meditation, can be an aid to truly making space for sides of my life and experience I can then offer to God which I otherwise would not.   The model used to teach extemporaneous amen 4“prayers of the heart” which I learned in Adventistism and evangelicalism was to speak to God as a friend.  But in reality, do I really open up about all of who I am with friends?  I might do this with my therapist, perhaps, but I know there are aspects of my life my friend might not find interesting.  There is a heartache too heavy for them to bear.  And there are things I don’t want to think about, from which my conversation with them even then can be an escape.

The prayers spoken by others in the history of our faiths, such as this Lord’s Prayer, can push us to make room for aspects of our lives we can face into and offer to God we would not think to share on our own.  I know, for me, the prayer each Sunday we do at United Church confessing our failures and frailties often lead me in the moment of silence that follows to think about, face into, and offer to God parts of myself I did not realize until saying such words I had been working hard to avoid facing all week.    So pre-written prayers which have guided others in their spiritual life can also lead us to more truly pray, if they open us to face sides of our hearts, lives, and world we have not been facing so we can offer those to God.
Another way in which we can pray faithfully such prayers is letting such prayers shape us.   It is said that Pope Francis one quipped that we pray for the hurting, then we help them.  That is how prayer works.  Such a simple yet profound truth!   When we pray, it is not just about wishing for things to happen to us, others, and our world.  It is about us being changed by the encounter, so that we begin to change how we look at and engage both our inner worlds and the world in which we live.

For example, truly praying the Lord’s Prayer means not just repeating empty words but also beginning to become mindful of the concerns it lifts up.  So I cannot pray it truly without becoming aware of my need to be a part of the “us” it continually mentions, to see myself as not just the atomistic pulling-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps Western culture particularly here in America teaches me to see myself, but instead to see myself as a part of this wider community in which I find myself.     I cannot pray truly this prayer until I let myself embrace the call to be a partner in building the shalom, the peace which flows from wholeness within and in my web of relationships, about which Jesus’s language of Kingdom speaks.  To truly, faithfully, pray this prayer may not be to perfectly express it, but it certainly is to allow it transform us.

amen 5In this way praying is not just asking for things for me, others, and the world.  It is not just venting my concerns to God as a friend.  It must also become a practice of mindfulness, in which I allow myself to become more fully aware of myself, God, and my world while also allowing the words of my prayer to cause me to encounter all of these in new ways.

This leads to the final significance I can see this morning to the word “Amen”.  Amen means “so be it”, or “let it be”.  At first glance, this makes it sound like some magic incantation.  “God, make what I want and ask for happen for me”.  Kind of a hocus-pocus, abracadabra for our magic spell.

Clearly, if that is what prayer is for, it doesn’t work.

But if prayer is about repositioning us and our relationship to our inner and outer worlds as I suggested above, “so be it” or “let it be” can be something else.  It can be agreeing to partner with God in the work God is doing to birth the reality we are brought in touch with through our prayers.

One of my favorite saints, preachers, and activists, the late Walter Rauschenbusch, oft said “the kingdom is always but coming”, speaking of the reality we pray to be brought into this world in the Lord’s Prayer.  He suggested that we people of faith have a calling to partner with God in working to bring this social reality into our world, into pushing down oppression and building up the community around us so it becomes life-giving.

To say “Amen” is to commit to partner with God as God is always, ever, at work to do what this prayer pictures – to repair the web of life, to birth shalom, to bringing healing in relationships, in lives, in God’s earth.

pray for workYou see, as Pope Francis suggested, to pray is also to commit to be one who shares a part in that prayer being answered.  This is as true for prayers of healing in our inner worlds, which though only possible through the grace present in the universe which Christians call “the love of God” but other faiths know by other names.  Sure.  But it also is only possible as we do our part, doing the work that brings healing.

Similarly as we face broken relationships, hungry people, people without health care, those facing oppression, and the systemic destruction of the web of life upon our planet, we must if we pray God’s kingdom to come in this place, both trust that grace will be present to make our work possible while also taking up that cause.

Let us be the “Yes” to the world’s prayer.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Daily Devotional: Pain Not as Enemy but Teacher on Life’s Journey

Some years ago I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer.  I think this prayer focuses on the heart of our faith and call to do justice, so I am sharing these thoughts again to help ground us in the trying times we are in.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
“Our Father,
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Today I want to focus on “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.
When I hear this prayer I cannot help but think “what is evil?”

Often in the face of loss, trauma, and pain, it is easy to identify these painful experiences with evil. The childlike part of ourselves that continues, behind the scenes, in our psyche even into adulthood still can react to pain as if such pain itself is evil. As children, we often come to associate pain with evil, for we are told it is “bad” to touch the stove for it might hurt us and many of us had punishments like spankings that caused physical pain growing up.
Yet most spiritual teachers and those who embark on a spiritual path of any type eventually conclude pain need not be viewed as an enemy. It can even become a kind of friend on our journey.
Notice what St. Paul says in Romans 5:
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Jesus seems to share a similar sentiment when John records Jesus as saying, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24).
Richard Rohr, writing of suffering, says:
“It is not that suffering or failure might happen, or that it will only happen to you if you are bad (which is what religious people often think), or that it will happen to the unfortunate, or to a few in other places, or that you can somehow by cleverness or righteousness avoid it. No, it will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences—all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey.” (in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life).
He goes on to talk of how suffering can actually, when approached using the resources a spiritual life can give us, open us up more fully to life:

suffering as teacher2

“Until we walk with despair, and still have hope, we will not know that our hope was not just hope in ourselves, in our own successes, in our power to make a difference, in our image of what perfection should be. We need hope from a much deeper Source. We need a hope larger than ourselves. Until we walk with personal issues of despair, we will never uncover the Real Hope on the other side of that despair. Until we allow the crash and crush of our images, we will never discover the Real Life beyond what only seems like death. Remember, death is an imaginary loss of an imaginary self, that is going to pass anyway.” (in Near Occasions of Grace).
As Rohr, Jesus, and Paul all point out, to live in this world is to live open to suffering. There is not a person that can bypass this experience of loss and pain. Every one will experience deep wounding in their lives. The question is not if we will suffer but how we will engage our suffering.
Evil, on the other hand, which we all will also experience, is something we can choose to participate with in greater or lesser ways. In Christian spirituality at least evil exists on a personal and communal level. The path of holiness is described throughout Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Scriptures all has having a similar shape to what is described in Micah 6:8’s summary of holy living:
“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 The Holy one has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

micah 6 8
Holiness is a life of loving kindness, of justice, and of humble connection with God, self, others, and our world. Lovingkindness, mercy, or compassion (depending on your rendering of Micah’s words) is this commitment to treat others around you with a sensitivity, compassion, and respect that recognizes others are valuable. To use the imagery of the New Testament, they are precious children of the same Creator who made the worlds and spoke over Jesus “this is my child, whom I love, in whom I am well-pleased”. It is recognizing that each person we encounter is so viewed by our Creator and ought to be viewed so by us. There is not a person we encounter who does not have this sacred worth, whom if we take the time to truly know and connect with will not shine with a limitless glory, beauty, and potential. To treat each human life with such honor, respect, and value – where we see their feelings, needs, points of view, as of equal worth to our own and to those society deems as “great” and “important”.

I would add, listening to our Native American, Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu brothers and sisters who teach us to value the sacredness of the earth, the life of other living creatures, that you know we ought to also learn to exercise lovingkindness toward nature itself – to the earth, the seas and rivers, the skies, the plants and animals around us. In the Christian Scriptures we are told ultimately the earth is the Lord’s, and that God’s presence can be uniquely seen in the thunder of the skies, the crash of waves, the towering cedars, the cry of birds, the hunting of the wolves, and the playing of the massive sea creatures in the ocean. We must learn from these brothers and sisters in other faiths in our spiritual journey to learn to exercise compassion, lovingkindness, and respect for all of life. Too often as Christians we’ve wedded language of “dominate” and “rule” toward nature more with the colonial, imperialistic mindset of ancient Rome, imperial powers in Europe, and capitalist materialism than with its original context: our call to be gardeners, caretakers, of a world that is not our own but rather God’s creation of great beauty.

Jesus Redeemer of All Creation
Ultimately our failure to see the breadth and this message has led us to the brink of ecological collapse. The example of our Buddhist brothers and sisters who often refuse meat and, like Christian saint Francis of Assisi, are taught to be gentle to even the smallest plants and animals, calls us back to the wider ethic of Scripture, messages we have overlooked, about our role being caretakers not exploiters of creation. The example of Native Americans, Hindus, and Jains who see other living things not as commodities to be used and exploited but as brothers and sisters together with us in this spiritual journey with lessons to teach us and a spiritual life of their own, invites us to see afresh Scriptures like Psalm 104 which put us not on top of some food chain but rather in the midst of community of creation in which the life of the birds in the sky, the creatures of the sea, the wild deer and wolves of the forests and hills, are of equal value to God as our own. In this Psalm God delights not in our dominance over other forms of life but are finding a harmonious place within it.
For many of us, though, exercising such lovingkindness toward other people and other living things comes through learning to work through the traumas, the shaming, the guilting, of our backgrounds so that we see ourselves as the Christian Scriptures say God always and ever sees us – as, like Jesus, children of God who, before and beside anything we can do right or wrong, are beloved and in whom the Creator delights and is well pleased simply for who we are. One goal of the spiritual life is to learn to lay aside the damage that teaches us we are too much or too little – too smart or too dumb, too strong or too vulnerable, too masculine or too feminine, too queer or too straight, and so on – to be of worth. To embrace instead our own intrinsic worth.
In many Eastern faiths a beautiful practice called lovingkindness or self-compassion meditation is often used to re-awaken this self-compassion which makes compassion toward other people and other living creatures, even the earth itself, possible. In Christianity we also can engage in prayer, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude practices, journaling, aimed at awakening this same awareness – and should! For learning to love ourselves enables us to love others.

talmud quote
The justice which is at the heart of spirituality here is as Martin Luther King Jr. says: ““Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” One could also that justice is what love looks like when put to action in our relationships.
And so to do justice is to work to resist and remove systems that oppress, abuse, destroy, and harm ourselves, other people, and other living creatures (even the earth itself). In every aspect of our lives – in our workplaces, our schools, in our nations and towns, even in our families – there exist patterns that scapegoat others, push out those viewed as “not worthy”, that abuse or exploit someone or some part of nature. These patterns and systems dishonor the true sacredness of the lives of others, of nature, of ourselves.
The spiritual life is this humble walking in connection with God as found in our own inner life, in connection with other people, and in connection with the life found in nature and other living things.
Evil is that which both on personal levels in our attitudes and actions, as well as in systems and patterns in our families, schools, work places, communities, neighborhoods, cities, nations, and the world at large overlooks or dishonors the sacredness of other people, ourselves, and other living things and which so excludes, oppressed, abuses, and exploits such ones.
The interesting thing when we consider our experience of suffering is when evil and holiness are viewed in such a way, one can see how when we embrace our suffering not as an enemy but as a teacher on our spiritual journey in the ways in which St. Paul, Richard Rohr, and Jesus seem to treat it, how much sense this begins to make. Since whether choose the path of compassion all our spiritual paths teach is holiness or the path of self-interest and indifference all our spiritual paths teach is evil, I will suffer either way, I can choose to pay attention to my own pain and let it open me up to what their suffering is life in the lives of the people around me and even in the experience of other living things.
If I do that my experience of suffering truly can be my best teacher. For as I endure the inevitable pains of life I am being given an education that can help me learn how to be mindful of others’ pains, sorrows, and joys.
This in fact is the Christian message on suffering. As 2 Corinthians says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, 4 who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. 6 If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.”

beloved (1)
Such insight is not unique to the Christian faith. When asked how he could respond to the Chinese people with such understanding and compassion in light of how they had historically abused, exploited, persecuted, and pushed out the Tibetan Buddhists to whom he was responsible as spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama once said that in his practice of meditation, he pays attention to his own experience of suffering, using it to understand his people’s suffering, and then meditates on the suffering of the Chinese people. As he does so, he says it enables him to transform his pain not into vengeful rage but into a deep identification with their unique experience of pain which is not unlike his own, an identification that is the birthplace of a compassion for them.
Let us hear the call of this prayer, to embrace each experience without judging it as evil or good even if is painful but instead as something which can teach us. For all we experience and each person or living thing we encounter, including this living world on which we live, can if we let it be another shining light on our path to living with lovingkindness and compassion, justice, and humble walking with God.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Micah

Daily Devotional: No Longer Victims, but Co-Creators of our Lives

Some years ago I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer.  I think this prayer focuses on the heart of our faith and call to do justice, so I am sharing these thoughts again to help ground us in the trying times we are in.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

JN931 Our Father (The Lord's Prayer)

 

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

I had intended to move on to discuss temptation and our prayer for deliverance from it, but find today I must continue to reflect on the part of the Lord’s Prayer in which we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  Last time I reflected on the idea that forgiveness – whether being forgiven or extending forgiveness –is a creative act.  journalingWhen we offer and accept forgiveness, we are choosing to change the way we view and tell the story of our lives.  True forgiveness requires moving away from seeing our lives in such a way that the story we tell about ourselves is one of a powerless victim of others unable to shape the course of their lives or a powerless puppet of fate, impulses, and feelings not responsible for their own choices.  To offer forgiveness is to recognize you have power, for to extend forgiveness requires recognizing that what has happened was a wrong, that you have a right to all the anger, pain, and frustration (even the desire for vengeance) being hurt produces.  It is feeling that power, recognizing the resiliency and strength that got you through something bad.  It is then recognizing your power to no forgive 7longer let what another has done to you dictate the story of your life, and out of that embracing freedom to choose what person you become: one strong enough, kind enough, deep enough to not let another’s wrongdoing turn you into a bitter, hateful, vengeful person.  For the difference between excusing another’s harm to you and truly forgiving them is true forgiveness includes acknowledging what has been done, acknowledging your right to demand the relationship end or the other make amends, and then finding the inner strength, power, and compassion on yourself and the one who wronged you to not let remain chained to what they have done to you.  To forgive is to set yourself free, an ultimate act of soul liberation.

Similarly, to truly accept forgiveness involves acknowledging yourself as one who is not just powerless over what you have done – not a puppet of temptation, bodily urges, feelings, the pressure of society around you – but instead one with the strength, power, making amends 3and wisdom to be able to do better even if better is not any more than when temptation, stress, or pressure hits seeking help.   This is a part of why 12 step spirituality encourages people recovering from addiction or alcoholism to develop a list of those they have wronged, strive to make amends, and then to reach out to seek forgiveness if it is possible.  Even if the relationship cannot be repaired (and often it can’t), seeking forgiveness in this way includes recognizing your own responsibility and is empowering to you while also freeing to the person to whom you admit this, as you give them permission to their pain.

I think it is important to note that one seeking forgiveness needs to recognize the person they have wronged has a right to be given time to process their anger, their hurt, their pain.

One of my favorite country songs is about the process from anger to forgiveness.  It goes

‘Last night we went to bed not talking

Cause we already said toO much

I face the wall you faced the window

Bound and determined not to touch

 

‘We’ve been married 7 years now

Some days if feels like 21

I’m still mad at you this morning

Coffee’s ready if you want some

I’ve been up since 5

Thinking about me and you

And I’ve got to tell you

The conclusion I’ve come to

 

[Chorus]

I’ll never leave, I’ll never stray

My love for you will never change

But I ain’t ready to make up or get around to that

I think I’m right I think your wrong

I’ll probably give in before long

Please don’t make me smile

I just want to be mad for awhile

 

‘For now you might as well forget it

Don’t run your fingers through my hair

Yeah that’s right I’m being stubborn

No I don’t want to go back upstairs

I’m going to leave for work

Without a goodbye kiss

But as I’m driving off

Just remember this

 

[Chorus twice]

 

‘ I just want to be mad for awhile

I just want to be mad for awhile

I just want to be mad for awhile”

 

This song is kind of funny to many in romantic relationships.  We’ve been there.  We know the feeling.

But it’s true: for the process of forgiving another to be genuine, it  often requires a time we sit with our emotions, pay attention to what they teach us, and come to terms with what has been wrong and what is needed to move forward.  To come seeking to make peace with another without giving the space and time to process these feelings is to disrespect the steamrollintegrity of their own soul.  That soul work of facing into their pain, having space to move from feeling disrespected and steam-rolled to feeling empowered again is important.   So if you are seeking to make peace, make sure you remember to give others that space.  Also, if you have been wronged, don’t feel a need to apologize if you need more time to process things before moving to forgiveness.  I have to believe the God who made our hearts and minds understands how painful and messy this all is, and knows that forgiveness is always a process never an event one comes to by a simple snap of the fingers.

Yet I also want to take a moment to talk about the parallel process that goes on in situations of trauma and loss.  For when we go through a trauma or a deep loss, be it illness, the death of one we love, we also can become stuck feeling we are in stories about our lives being written without our consent or power.   We can then as well find ourselves trauma chartfeeling powerless, out of control.  We can emotionally shut down.  We can freeze, stuck in place, not moving forward in our lives.  In truth, to be stuck is not simply to stay in place for life always moves forward, even in the face of loss.  It is to slide backwards ever more, like some leaf caught on the flowing river, every moment flowing further and further away from the stuff of life.

In loss and trauma we are invited through this prayer to do a similar work.  To take time, yes, to sit with the anger, the pain, the abandonment.  But again not let it define us.  To begin to ask, little by little, in what way can I engage what is happening so I am not just a character whose story is being written by another, the blind pen of circumstance, but instead a co-author of this tale?  How can I find ways to see my story differently, to capture a sense of where I have found and embraced glimmers of strength, resiliency, compassion, which pull me through? To capitalize on those and, even as I make space to face into my pain, to begin to become again a co-creator of my life?

In a way this is what the authors of Scripture do, isn’t it?  Most of the Hebrew Scriptures were put together after the people of Judah faced the two traumas of the desolation of their sister nation, Israel, and then their mass deportation by Babylon.  They lost their exilenation, their wealth, their freedom, and faced the possibility of losing all of who they are.  They used the process of weaving their stories of faith together into a Scripture as a way of making sense of what had happened in a way that it gave them a sense of power, meaning, and direction.  So much beauty, wisdom, and insight was birthed through this so that it not only gave them the power to continue as a people even to this day, but also so that it could inspire people of all nations, cultures, times, and walks of life with ageless wisdom that continues to speak and guide.

Similarly in the Christian Gospels we see where the early followers of Jesus went through an amazing trauma – seeing their found hauled away, beaten, killed, and buried as a jesus resurrection appearance 7common criminal.   How must that story have looked like before they had the experience we remember at Easter which convinced them that in some surprising unexpected way this Jesus was not defeated but continued to live, move, and be active in their world?   How must it have looked before they processed it, analyzed it?

We get glimmers of this in the early Easter stories, where the disciples huddle in fear behind locked doors, walk home dispirited spinning tales of a failed faith, or return to their old lives be they fishing or tax collecting.

The Easter and Pentecost experiences, however we understand them – whether literally resuscitation from death and speaking in tongues with fire dancing over head or as some kind of spiritual awakening to the ongoing presence of Jesus alive beyond death and to the ongoing presence of God within, in, and under us all – provided the new perspective which enabled them to process their grief, heal, and begin to move forward.   They saw, viewed, and told the stories of their trauma differently.

In my own life this is a process I have gone through and continue to go through in the face of traumas of my childhood, the traumatic loss without warning of my late wife, losses of mindfulness-quote-jon-kabat-zinnmultiple friends who’ve passed, and other events in my life.  For me, meditation, therapy, close friends I can talk to, and a practice of spiritual journaling have helped me begin to find ways to talk, think, and write about what I have gone through in ways where I begin to see and understand my story differently.  I begin to experience my pain as a teacher that opens me up to new awareness, new compassion, and deeper faith & spirituality.  I begin to see my own sources of resiliency.

A guide for me in this process, as I’ve said before, was the poet Rumi, a Muslim mystic who, on losing unexpectedly his friend and possibly romantic partner Shams, processes this grief and trauma through writing and mystical practice.  Together these create some of the most moving and beautiful poetry the world has ever seen.

My challenge to you, the challenge I hear afresh to me in this prayer, is to find ways to move forward in your life, to become again co-creators with God of the stories of your life, so together you can pen a new tale, one that gathers up your experience of pain transforming it into a tale not just of death but death and resurrection, for this is what it means to be Easter people.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Forgiveness as the Power to Re-write Your Painful Story

Some years ago I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer.  I think this prayer focuses on the heart of our faith and call to do justice, so I am sharing these thoughts again to help ground us in the trying times we are in.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

lords prayer 1

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

I am continuing this morning to reflect on the part of the Lord’s Prayer in which we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  In my last post I talked about varying perspectives on forgiveness and how forgiveness is a journey, one which is different for everyone.

forgive 2One perspective I did not mention came out of a conversation with a woman I know.  She said that something heart-breaking had happened to someone she loved.  She shared how she has trouble even talking about or remembering what happened to them both, because of the pain, anger, and anguish that welled up in her soul.  “Forgiveness is hard”, she said, “because even thinking about what happened I feel powerless”

Yet the one most hurt, who it hurts her most to think of having suffered, apparently had let go what had happened.  “Her attitude is so great.  She says we are strong.  We are resilient.  Look at what we went through and how we went on.  We didn’t give but embrace the lives we had.  Who does that?”  As this dear woman shared her story now, how her face lit up.

A point I made to her is that transition even in telling her story there – from one difficult to speak of, for it is weakness and loss; to one in which one finds strength and resiliency – seems to be a part of what forgiveness is about.

To forgive I must learn to re-write my own story.  True forgiveness comes not from a place of weakness but, as Gandhi says, always flows from deep strength.  When we have been letter writingdeeply wounded we can easily see ourselves as broken, damaged, powerless, voiceless, and unable to influence our world.  I think that true healing involves not just a quick promise of forgiveness but really sitting with and facing into our pain and what it teaches us.  I think it is learning out of the pain to find our own inner strength, strength that enables us to re-imagine ourselves not just as powerless victims of others or of life but ones who discover inner strengths and resources even in the midst of suffering. In such a context we can change the story we tell about ourselves.   In this new story we are not in a position of just victim but also as ones with the power to take our pain and transform it into beauty, take negative experiences and turn them into opportunities to grow, and to take one’s hurtful actions and make them seedbeds in which compassion can grow

When we find ourselves becoming in the stories we tell about our lives as people of strength, resiliency, and hope we can then engage our pains of the past and those who have hurt us differently.  We can then begin to let go the hold their actions have done on us, beginning to see event them with eyes of compassion.  This is the starting place of forgiveness.

Forgiveness as re-writing one’s own story also works in receiving forgiveness.  For often a part of why we are unwilling to accept other’s offer of forgiveness and feel the need to beat ourselves up with shame is because a part of us wants to cling to the illusion of our own omnipotence and invulnerability.  It is hard to admit we are flawed, broken at times, and unable to make the right choice.   It is admitting imperfection and being vulnerable.  Yet writerwhen we do this we do not have to admit ourselves as mistakes, broken beyond repair, or as some kind of moral monster.   For all of us are made perfectly imperfect, and to admit it is to admit our basic humanity.  It is to admit we are not God ourselves, but rather children learning, growing, falling down, as we learn to find our way in walking.  But we – and those in our lives, including those who have harmed us and whom we have harmed – are children of the living God, at least according to Christian spirituality.  This means in the badly damaged and hurt of us dwells the light of eternity, infinite resources to draw on, for in us is the presence of God Themselves.     And in the most hurtful, damaging, heart-wrenching person in terms of what they have done to us lies not just evil or brokenness but also the same Sacred Fire that burns in our hearts, the hearts of every saint and mystic.  There is a goodness deep in even the person who has done the most wrong which we can with God’s help find and encounter.

Forgiveness – both given and received – is one way of many we can embark on the journey of re-writing our own stories so that the pain and loss we have had at the hands of others and the pain and loss we have caused others & ourselves do not define us anymore.  We can fully face our pain while embracing our ability hand in hand with God to create new futures, new realities, and an identity not bound to what is broken and wrong but which fully embraces all our vulnerability and promise.   This takes particular significance in times of loss in which we may feel so vulnerable and helpless, and yet this call is to a journey which reminds us the power and potential we each have in the most vulnerable of moments.

Let us continue on this journey together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Forgiveness — Not a Straight Path but Winding Journey

Some years ago I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer.  I think this prayer focuses on the heart of our faith and call to do justice, so I am sharing these thoughts again to help ground us in the trying times we are in.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

jewish-praying-5798727

I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles.   In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

I am continuing this morning to reflect on the part of the Lord’s Prayer in which we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  In the last few posts I discussed various approaches to the idea of sin: missing the mark, trespass of boundaries, debtand actions that produce a debt to the world, others, and God.  In each I shared some thoughts about what receiving grace and forgiveness from God might look like with each approach to sin, as well as why extending such grace and forgiveness might be important.

Forgiveness, though, is tricky.  It is perhaps one of the most beautiful practices lifted up by Jesus in the Gospels (and, to be fair, other spiritual teachers in other faiths) but when it is needed, can be painful, heart-wrenching, and frustrating.  There is even debate about whether forgiveness is always appropriate or possible.  Some find in facing into experiences of horrific abuse, of torture, of rape, of child molestation, of crimes against humanity in war or genocide, forgiveness hard to conceive.  How can we forgive without opening ourselves up to more pain?  I cannot forgive, some say, for I can never forget the pain these have caused.  Or, a question I asked about some circumstances in my life, how is it my right to forgive since what I am angry over is not what was done to me but one I loved?

Instead of puzzling through these difficult questions I want to do two things.

First, I want to acknowledge there is not one right answer to these questions.  Often times we treat the Bible (or for non-Christians, the spiritual teachings of those paths) as a black and white rule book with language of forgiveness as yet another law to obey.  Forgiveness does not work like that.  We cannot flip a switch and be done with heartache and anger.  It is a journey to freeing ourselves and, at times, others.   What counts is not one’s path to inner and outer freedom, the freedom forgiveness brings, but instead going on the journey.  At times one must live into the tension, struggle through the uncertainty, and find their own path to healing.   Your path to letting go of the hold the pains of the past have on you might be very different than my own.  Your way toward letting your future be defined not by what others have done to you or those you love but by who you are at heart, forgive 1which to me is the fruit of the forgiveness journey, might not make any sense to anyone else.  It will certainly include spots in which you are exasperated and say it is too much.   And that is alright.   You alone have borne this pain, for even two people going through the same events experience them differently.  Only you and the Holy Spirit within you who feels your every pain, heartache, joy, and sorrow, know what you bear.  No one else has any right to dictate your path.  But, also, no matter what you have been through, you deserve the peace, freedom, and joy which this journey of inner healing can bring even if the path to healing may not fit anyone’s picture of how healing comes but your own.

Secondly, since there is not one answer for all people but rather a journey we go on with the help of God (by which I mean that energy for life, for wholeness, for meaning at the heart of existence which folks of other traditions may call by other names), instead of giving you one answer, I’d like to share some perspectives of people of faith in different traditions sharing what forgiveness means to them.

anger forgiveZen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says of forgiveness that “The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.”

In his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies”, this is how the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King speaks of forgiveness:

“First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.

“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the forgive 6relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Likewise, we can never say, “I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.” Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.”

Writing of forgiveness, Gandhi says: “”I do not know a single instance where forgiveness has been found so wanting as to be impolitic … What is true of individuals is true of nations. One cannot forgive too much. The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others tutu no futurewho do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger. However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.”

And also:

“Forgiving is not forgetting; its actually remembering–remembering and not using your right to hit back. Its a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you dont want to repeat what happened. . . Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

Psychcentral says the following about forgiveness at http://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-forgiveness/ :

“Forgiveness is letting go of the need for revenge and releasing negative thoughts of bitterness and resentment. . . Forgiveness can be a gift that we give to ourselves. Here are some easy steps towards forgiveness:

 

Acknowledge your own inner pain.

Express those emotions in non-hurtful ways without yelling or attacking.

Protect yourself from further victimization.

desmond_tutu_3_2Try to understand the point of view and motivations of the person to be forgiven; replace anger with compassion.

Forgive yourself for your role in the relationship.

Decide whether to remain in the relationship.

Perform the overt act of forgiveness verbally or in writing. If the person is dead or unreachable, you can still write down your feelings in letter form.

 

What Forgiveness Is Not…

 

Forgiveness is not forgetting or pretending it didn’t happen. It did happen, and we need to retain the lesson learned without holding onto the pain.

Forgiveness is not excusing. We excuse a person who is not to blame. We forgive because a wrong was committed.

Forgiveness is not giving permission to continue hurtful behaviors; nor is it condoning the behavior in the past or in the future.

Forgiveness is not reconciliation. We have to make a separate decision about whether to reconcile with the person we are forgiving or whether to maintain our distance.”

Not all of these perspectives are the same, but all are struggling through the question of “what does forgiveness and inner healing look like?  How does it flow out into my relationships?”

Ultimately what counts is not having the exact same answer as these spiritual teachers, as me, or as others in your life, but finding the path to healing in your own heart and in relationship to others.

This is a journey we are each on and must embark on in new ways every day.  Let’s help each other get to that destination together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Grace Beyond Our Failings

Some years ago I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer.  I think this prayer focuses on the heart of our faith and call to do justice, so I am sharing these thoughts again to help ground us in the trying times we are in.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

 

broken heart 2Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

I am continuing this morning to reflect on the part of the Lord’s Prayer in which we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  Last time, I began to reflect on another rendering of this line – “forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us” exploring the concept of sin as debt to others, to God, to the web of life itself, to our own souls; and how it calls us to be partners with God in mending ourselves, our lives, and our world.

Today I want to look at the limits of our ability to mend and make amends which this prayer invites us to consider.

In the book of Romans, chapter 13, St. Paul urges us to “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

This is a beautiful summary of the image for failing to live up to our best which is included in calling this “debt”, an image I noted last time is not unique to Christianity but also exists not just in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam but also in a certain sense as a part of the Eastern concept of karma we see present in Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism.    We discussed how it is important to note our actions truly do have an effect on others, on nature, on our own souls and we have a responsibility as people of spirit to work to mend the parts of the fabric of life our own choices have damaged.

Yet there are limits to our ability make amends, to set right what we have done.

For me this was powerfully pictured in the comedy show “My Name is Earl”.  In this show a very redneck guy who’d lived his life causing trouble, committing petty crimes, and karma i a funny thinggenerally being disrespectful has the twin experiences simultaneously of winning the lottery and getting hit by a car.  When he comes to in the hospital he hears a TV personality on the hospital TV talking about karma.  This leads him to decide perhaps he ought to mend his life.  The whole plot of the show is that Earl sits down and writes a list of everyone he has wronged and each episode he uses the free time his lottery money has earned him to go and try to make amends.  Sometimes it is touching to see this happen.  Other times it is painful and hilarious, for often he confronts situations in which what he has cost another person can never be literally repaid and he has to come up with creative ideas to make amends.  And sometimes, amends cannot come.

There are times in life that we cannot unring a bell.  This is a real human problem that can be heart-breaking and which every faith of the world deals with differently.   In many of the Eastern faiths, such a concern seems to be at the root originally of the idea of reincarnation.   We do not reincarnate, at least according to the earlier forms of these faiths, when we’ve figured it all out in life.  No … either we are released to nirvana or ushered beyond death into some higher level of reality.   We are reincarnated because we have unfinished business, strands on the web of life we have damaged and not yet repaired, lessons the universe is trying to teach us we have not yet learned.  And so there is a grace imagined present in the universe to provide us time and space to heal ourselves, others, and our world from the wrongs we have done.

By and large the faiths of Abraham are more skeptical about the idea of reincarnation, although you can find strains of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity which embrace this concept.   By and large, though, these Abrahamic faiths embrace more an idea of resurrection.  We live our whole lives but once on this precious speck of a planet in its circles around the sun.  And then, whether immediately or at some final day in the future, our whole self is ushered through resurrection into the next world into the presence of God.

For me, I’m unsure how literally to understand either reincarnation or resurrection to the next world (which my Christian faith calls “heaven”) and have a hunch that, in their own way, both sets of images speak to a deeper truth in which these two seemingly contradictory depictions of what comes for us after death are not opposites but two sides of the same coin.  I imagine until I get to that other side I won’t know how, but I think we will find many of these seeming contradictions across the boundaries of established traditions to in fact each have held some truth about what lies ahead.

Even though Christians tend not to believe in karma and reincarnation in the way our Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh brothers and sisters do, we really do confront the same issue behind that idea: sure, we can make amends.  Certainly we can strive to set right what we making amendshave done.  But at the end of the day, if healing, wholeness, and restoration – whether of our own souls, of our relationships with others, of nature itself, and even with God – depends on our ability to make things completely right again, we are screwed.   No matter how hard we try, there will always be things we face where we can never undo the damage we have done.  There will always be areas where even the amends we do make still leave threads hanging loose, and so often no amends remain.

The Christian answer to this dilemma is seen symbolically in the person of Jesus.   In Jesus Christians believe God appears to us, embodied in a human life, the life of one who freely embraces everyone without condemnation and fully expresses heartfelt selfless love.   In Jesus God comes to us, bridging the distance all our failures to love, failures to have compassion, failures to serve, creates.   In Jesus God offers unconditional forgiveness, welcome, and embrace.   Ultimately to embody this for us, Jesus lets himself be killed by Multicultural Jesus 1us, for we do not understand unconditional love when we see it and we lash out as human beings when we see what we do not understand, at least until we have raised our own awareness enough to birth compassion.  The meaning of Easter is that somehow such a love and forgiveness can overcome even the most destructive act against love: torture and murder itself.  In some mysterious way the very people who lashed out at Jesus fearful of his unconditional love encounter him alive again beyond death, somehow victorious over death itself, continuing to extend grace.

This choice – to not let wrongdoing, failure to love and extend compassion, define our relationships with ourselves, others, God, or the world – is the type of forgiveness the prayer Jesus teaches us is about.   It in fact is a call to live a courageous hope in the face of the world’s hatefulness (and our own).

We see this choice at work when Dr. Martin Luther King chose to call for horribly martin luther kingoppressed people of color to not choose violence but nonviolent loving resistance, and he chose in the fact of horrible suffering, persecution, and ultimately his murder, to continue to cast a dream of a world in which people of all races laid aside their historic grievances, their systems of oppression, and found true community and family together.

We see this choice at work when Corrie Ten Boon chose to make space for Jews hiding from NAZI soldiers in her home and then, after her imprisonment and mistreatment by the NAZIs for such compassion, her choice to forgive and embrace the same soldiers who hurt her and others when they came seeking her forgiveness.

I think we see this choice courageously at work when, in post-Apartheid South Africa, the government under the leadership of faithful people like Desmond Tutu and Nelson desmond_tutu_3_2Mandela chose to not seek blood from all who had bought into and accommodated the system of racist oppression (which was almost everyone who was white in some small or large way) but instead to find a middle path, however imperfect, which held open the possibility of people making what amends they could and allowing for a healing beyond retribution for the whole community.

Whether you picture it through the hope of reincarnation or the promise of God come in Jesus, the spiritual truth both picture is that there is a grace at work in the universe beyond what we have done right or wrong, beyond our ability to repair what we have damaged, which can work healing and new beginning.  It calls us, especially in the words of Jesus’ prayer, to open ourselves up to accepting that before anything we can do, there is an unconditional love and acceptance of who we are.  This grace can empower us to change ourselves and set right where we can, knowing that more grace beyond our failings is present even when our attempts to mend fall flat.  There is a healing power in the universe that will rise up to meet us, bringing to completion what we begin, a power known by many names but to Christians like myself known as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, the One God at the center of all life.  This grace too if we will let it move through us, bit by bit, will call us to extend that some hope for others, so that while we may not allow ourselves to be taken advantage of or abused again, we also will hold out hope for others to change, to make right, and a grace that looks at the effort made when even such attempts fall flat, a grace ready to embrace an build new relationships and new community.

May we all taste of, see, and live out this grace this day and all our days.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Mending Ourselves, Mending Our Souls, Mending Our World

Some years ago I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer.  I think this prayer focuses on the heart of our faith and call to do justice, so I am sharing these thoughts again to help ground us in the trying times we are in.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

breath prayer

I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles.   In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

Debt (1)I am continuing this morning to reflect on the part of the Lord’s Prayer in which we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  Last time, I talked about the alternate rendering of the word “sin” as “transgression”.  Today I want to reflect on another rendering of this line – “forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us”.

This particular form of the Lord’s Prayer holds a special place in my heart for, though the version in the UCC Book of Worship quote above is the one I regularly use with my hospice patients, the prayer used at the United Church of Chapel Hill, the community that carried me through the heart-wrenching loss of my wife of a dozen years, is “forgive us our debts”.

This language of sin as debt is highly evocative and challenging to me.

debtPreviously we discussed the concept of sin as not some innate brokenness or nature contrary to and in opposition to God, but instead a missing the mark of the best we can do in relationships with God, self, and others; and also a failure to live into the life-giving boundaries we, others, and nature need to thrive.  The language of “debt” draws on a rich metaphor found not only in Christian and Jewish Scriptures but also many world faiths without roots in the experience of God foundational to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

For instance, the concept of karma we find in Easter faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism seems to be connected originally with a system of sacrifice to make atonement for our actions similar to what we see in the early Judaism of the books of Leviticus and Numbers in the Hebrew Scriptures many of us know as the Christian Old Testament.  The concept appeared to be that originally our choices produced a kind of cost on us and the universe.  Ones that are life-giving help further our life and the lives of other creatures.  But other choices tear at the fabric of life, of nature, of human community, and our very souls.  They will necessarily produce in all those areas costs which must be paid.  It appears from the limited reading I’ve done on the history of the idea of karma that just as in Judaism, in Hinduism originally sacrifice and offerings at temples at altars as well as visits to holy sites were intended to allow one to do some to put that karma back in balance.  Eventually, as in Judaism, the focus moved from literal sacrifice to an amending of one’s life and an attempt to set right what one has wronged.  Ultimately such amending of your life cannot completely undo what is done.   The fabric of life remains worn and your life incomplete, not fully formed. hinduism yoga It seems to be this context in which the Eastern concept of reincarnation appears – as a way of envisioning how one can amend the unamendable, evolve beyond the limits one life has produced.   Ultimately we can have many lives in the Eastern religious mindset to do our part to mend the fabric of life which our choices have torn asunder.  We will pay that debt, and life graces us every opportunity to mend, make whole, and mature.

This sense that our choices produce a debt to others, to the universe, and ultimately to God is present too in the Hebrew Scriptures which are the basis of Judaism and much of the inspiration for Christianity and Islam.  The sacrificial system which most adherents of all three faiths no longer see as binding was a way of addressing this issue.   Symbolically by 8-1_tabernacle-entrancebeing called to offer a life at the altar each time one acts in a way that tears at the fabric of community, the web of life itself, and one’s soul is a way of acknowledging the cost our choices have – and the debt they can occur.  Ultimately though the Hebrew Scriptures suggest the point is not to sacrifice animals as if that truly amends what we have done, but to seek to change the pattern of our lives.

This is the point of the oft-repeated maxim of Micah chapter 6:

““With what shall I come before the Lord,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?”

Here the prophet Micah makes it clear the point is acknowledging that, though we cannot fully undo what we have done, we can work to change our actions in the future.  We can work to act today with more justice, with more compassion, with more humility, with a mindfulness of the spiritual reality all about and within us, every person, and all of life – the spiritual reality called by many names but known in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity as God the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all of life.

Such a call to amend our lives seems to continue on for Christians into the New Testament.  We see it in the teaching of John the Baptist.  When asked how people should respond to the presence of judgment for our choices falling upon us all, John suggests a john baptizer 2making amends from where we have bought into systems and patterns of injustice in the past and making a change in actions in the future: “10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3).

Similarly, later in Luke, when Zaccheaus the tax collector repents, his repentance involves paying back those he has defrauded and putting to the needs of the most taken advantage of in his society that wealth he had gained through trampling underfoot the needs of others.  It is a change akin to what occurs in 12-step spirituality: he makes an honest accounting of his life choices, acknowledges where he has harmed others, and seeks to make amends whenever possible.

Often the need to amend and make amends of our lives is overlooked in contemporary Christianity in a way it may not be in other spiritualities because I think of the Protestant emphasis on grace alone and total forgiveness past, present, and future of all our sins.   It is important, I think, based on this prayer to recognize our need to take an accounting of our lives, to acknowledge our failings, how we have harmed others and even harmed our earth. There is something missing in our spirituality when we fail to take ownership for our contributions to the harming of the earth.

My late friend rabbi Jernigan when partnering together with me on social justice work when I was pastor in Eastern North Carolina, would often bring up the Jewish concept mend world 2tikkun olam as the spiritual concept which informed his justice work.  Tikkun olam means literally to mend or perfect the world.  The idea is when Creator God made our world, it was good but not fully mature, fully grown.  We have the role of helping perfect the good world God made.   And a part of the process of it becoming full grown is actions and events which tear at the fabric of life itself, because of our own freedom to do wrong by each other.   This leaves brokenness in our world, and in ourselves.   To be holy people is to be people engaged in mending that brokenness, helping re-weave the torn fabric of our communities, the earth, the web of life in which we emerge, our relationships, and our souls.  To do so involves both positively doing healing things in our world.  But it also cannot happen without making amends in certain ways.

Next time I want to continue looking at this concept by examining the limits of our ability to make amends and how this connects with our prayer both for forgiveness and promise to strive to be forgiving people.  Until then I invite you to join me in becoming more mindful of your own life and how we can engage ourselves in mending our own lives and our world so that we can be whole and our world made more whole.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah