Different gifts, one purpose

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An old friend of mine is a lifelong Episcopalian, active in his church, faithful to God, eager to share his gifts for the common good. My friend is a university professor, has written several books and has had the ear of a few Presidents. My friend has, what we sometimes refer to as “influence”. My friend’s academic research focuses on evaluating government programs designed to assist the poorest of the poor citizens in his country. So it’s not surprising that the Episcopal Church he chose to attend was a faith community with a diverse demographic. The congregation is located in an urban area with a high rate of poverty. It will come as no surprise to you that this church has a foodbank.

My friend has volunteered at the foodbank for many years. One day I received an email from him expressing some frustration that his gifts were not being fully utilized by his church. As he said to me, “Here I am a university professor bagging groceries every Saturday, surely there are more important things I could be doing…”

 

The Apostle Paul is credited with more books in the New Testament than any other Biblical figure. Paul’s conversion experience and his evangelical zeal connected him to countless churches spread out in his large region. James Boyce, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary has this to say about this particular faith community in Corinth. This was a “charismatic” community, defined by the exercise of various gifts: speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, etc. The Corinthians took pride in their gifts to the point of one-upmanship. The leadership of the community must have felt threatened, for the Corinthians were splintering into groups with their own rivaling leaders.

As you have heard me assert many times central to Paul’s theology is the doctrine of grace, that God loves us unconditionally, that God calls us into existence, God gifts us for relationship and God focuses our efforts on a common good, that is a shared sense of community, what makes us whole and brings out the best in all of us. The sign of this faithfulness is the assurance of the Spirit’s active presence in all persons and community and, no matter what their fears and particular evidences to the contrary, as ones called into this community we are not lacking in any gift that the Spirit has to offer.

The guiding principle, in the form of a Pauline mantra, is confidence that with the Spirit’s gifts comes the wisdom to understand and the ability to work for that which “builds up the community. “All things are lawful; but not all things are helpful” (6:12; 10:23). Consideration of these two verses together underscores that for Paul “what is beneficial,” “what builds up,” and living in the “freedom” of “all things being lawful” are mutually interdependent realities. When considering God’s gifts, Paul says, we always need to begin by getting one thing straight. The central “gift” of the Spirit is our common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. This confession, empowered by the event of the cross and resurrection, binds this community and all Christian communities together in a unity that overarches all our differences. This central idea is the purest form of freedom, it releases us from our fears and anxieties, if Jesus can die in his witness, sharing his gifts, affirming others’ gifts, and be resurrected to new life surely there is nothing that can prevent our God from using our gifts for the common good. Circumstances may look bleak, our gifts may appear to be exercised with no immediate results in the offing but our God will redeem our sacred offering, our God will prevail and our gifts will rebuild and renew and refresh.

“The common good” (12:7) is given with particularity and with purpose “for the common good.” Of course that “common good” is not always transparent; it has to be negotiated in practice, again by the use of the gift of wisdom, in consideration of what it is that “builds up the community.” Paul argued against notion of their narrow notion of “grassroots” leadership. Instead, he argued for the big picture. For Paul, God was in charge. This was Paul’s cultural presumption. The Jewish notion of Creation could be simply stated that all things came from God, so they would return to God. To address the question of how to organize these various gifts of the Spirit Paul tried to make a cultural accommodation to the Greek community. The highest virtue in the Greek world was wisdom, the ability to make clear and correct judgments. Such a virtue was higher than knowledge, for it guided the person to seek the right knowledge. Both wisdom and knowledge led to firm faith. The rest of the gifts were based upon spiritual power and the needs within the community.

So back to my friend in the Episcopal Church, he wanted to offer his spiritual gifts, which he would describe as macro planning, the ability to imagine ways to move people to better outcomes. Instead of this kind of gift sharing this disciple felt he was wasting his talents by bagging groceries and sorting food donations. At a critical point my friend began exploring other Episcopal Churches, ones where he felt that the other members were more like him, would value his unique gifts, where he might be more effective. He told me there was a critical moment when he became aware of that “still small voice” of the Spirit, that told him to contact the church leadership team at his home church and tell them about his dilemma.

With some reflection and conversation this church and my friend came to a “wise” understanding that 1) bagging groceries was in fact a spiritual gift, a gift of labour and a gift of humility and 2) there ought to be other ways for my friend to exercise his discipleship but it was important that his gift be “tested” by the quest for a “common good”. In other words, it was important that my academic friend find a way to partner with others in the church so together they could meet a need in their community. The small team my friend assembled reached out to the church and the community and asked what was needed and what they heard was job training, personal support and personal development. And so my friend and his team began to implement a program to meet this need, to help the church offer something that might change lives, build people up, improve the common good of the community.

It worked. All members of this small team offered different spiritual gifts but it was the gift of wisdom that helped the community, helped my friend, to be reminded about the “common good”. All gifts belong to God and exist for God’s purpose. Each of us has many spiritual gifts that come from our Creator and they exist for the very purposes of our Creator. What a joy to know we have these gifts, to know what they are for, to know in our Easter faith that God will use these gifts to redeem our broken world. Thanks be to God for this deep and wise understanding. Together we can and we do live this vision into life. Amen.

Our Bodies

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Listening to Our Body

By Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Though we began our lives immersed in unitive, kinesthetic knowing, very quickly we begin to see the distinctions and divisions in the world. As a toddler, I learned: “I am not my mother. My mother is not me.” The developing ego sees by differentiation and negation. “I am not a girl. My skin is pale, not dark.” While such an ego structure is a natural and necessary part of growing up, it always gets in the way of the soul’s holistic, nondual consciousness. My identity—intelligence, moral sense, wealth, and social class—is unfortunately gained in contrast, comparison, and competition to the person next to me.

My still center, my True Self, does not need to compare itself. It just is and is content. This must be “the pearl of great price.” To the extent that our soul is alive and connected, we are satisfied with the “enoughness” of who we are and the “more than enoughness” of many present moments. (In our consumeristic and competitive world, I am afraid this is becoming harder and harder to experience.)

Living solely out of our ego splits us off from our body and our soul. Western Christianity and culture have largely surrendered to the dualistic split of body vs. soul, and Christians even speak of “saving their soul” instead of also saving their body. We fear the body, particularly our sexuality (as we’ll explore in a couple weeks). This is why so many of us, especially men, don’t know how to contact our actual feelings. We often repress emotions and physical sensations for the sake of efficiency and success. There are times when it is appropriate to let our thinking mind lead instead of immediately following our body’s instincts. But we must do so with full awareness and appreciation for our body, rather than pushing feelings away or pretending they don’t exist. Repressing feelings and sensations relegates them to our unconscious “shadow” self and they come out in unexpected and often painful ways. They don’t go away.

We need to understand kinesthetic, bodily knowing. We need to recognize our physical responses—be they fear, arousal, pleasure, or pain. It’s not always as obvious as sweat under the arms. It may take a few minutes of intentional focus to become aware of tension in our shoulders, churning in our gut, a pounding heart, or goose bumps. (I’ll be honest: I’m not so good at this yet; I just know it to be true and valuable.)

Irish poet and priest, John O’Donohue (1956-2008), with whom I once had a wonderful dinner, says it well:

Your mind can deceive you and put all kinds of barriers between you and your nature; but your body does not lie. Your body tells you, if you attend to it, how your life is and if you are living from your soul or from the labyrinths of your negativity…The human body is the most complex, refined, and harmonious totality.

Your body is, in essence, a crowd of different members who work in harmony to make your belonging in the world possible…The soul is not simply within the body, hidden somewhere within its recesses. The truth is rather the converse. Your body is in the soul. And the soul suffuses you completely.

Reducing Stress

Distraction and Humor In Stress Reduction

By Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. for https://www.mentalhelp.net/

Distraction

Cognitive restructuring teaches people to rethink the basic assumptions that cause them to experience more stress than is absolutely necessary. While an excellent and effective technique for stress reduction, it is also a long-term strategy. Several weeks of practice and training must occur before substantial stress reduction can be expected. Even though it is a good idea to invest the time and effort necessary to learn cognitive restructuring, it is an equally good idea to know about effective alternative strategies that can bring about more rapid, if only temporary, forms of stress relief.

One of the simplest psychological techniques for rapid stress relief involves finding ways to distract yourself from whatever it is that is bothering you. From our previous discussion, you'll recall that as we become more stressed out, our attention tends to narrow and focus on what we perceive as threatening. Distraction techniques work by interrupting this process of attentional narrowing so that we stop thinking about what is bothering us for a while and instead think about something else. As the saying goes, "Out of sight, Out of mind."

Different people cope with stress in different ways, and distraction as a stress coping and management technique works better for some of these people than for others. One of the most basic coping style differences people tend to develop is known as Repression-Sensitization. Some people, known as "repressors," find it very natural to cope with stress and threat by ignoring it, or otherwise distracting themselves from thinking about that threat. Other people, known as "sensitizers" naturally cope with threat by seeking out more information, so as to be able to develop a complete picture of the threat that is useful for predictive purposes. Neither threat-coping strategy is inherently more healthy than the other. Different people just tend to polarize in terms of how they handle stress along these lines.

Distraction tends to be more of a useful coping technique for sensitizers than for repressors. Repressors are already in the habit of coping with threatening information by ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. Giving such people permission to distract themselves further is not a good idea, as it may encourage unhealthy levels of escapism and denial.

People with strong sensitization tendencies will often find themselves uncomfortable using distraction as a stress release. This is because sensitizers can feel threatened by the thought of diverting their attention, as they fear that the threat might get worse if they don't continually monitor it. People experiencing such fears can hopefully relax, however, safe in the knowledge that what is being proposed is not irresponsibility, but rather strategic and measured distraction; enough to take the edge of stress off, but not enough to let anything seriously dangerous slip past one's watchful eye. Most threats people worry about are not imminent or acute in nature, and watching a movie, going for a walk or working on a project so as to take a break from worrying will not typically result in negative consequences.

There are many ways people may distract themselves away from stressful thoughts. Popular distractions include doing chores and work, engaging in hobbies and projects, socializing and seeking out sources of entertainment such as movies, games (including video games) and books. It helps if the activities are interesting, absorbing and immersive, as such things are easier for people to focus on for sustained periods of time. Things that are merely time occupiers may not hold attention, and therefore fail to distract people from their stress and worry for very long.

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Humor

For many people, humor is a very effective, simple and inexpensive way to decrease stress. Humor is effective as a stress-relieving method for numerous reasons. First, humor functions as a distraction, interrupting the chain of thought that results in stress. Effective humor also results in laughter, which is a physical release of tension. Humor shifts the focus of attention away from oneself and focuses it instead on others. This shift of attention enlarges people's anxiety-narrowed perspective to include the misfortune of others, thereby reducing the perceived need to stress about their own problems. Humorous stories often help people to recognize that however bad their situation might be, there is always someone who is worse off.

The prototypical poster boy for the use of humor as a stress relieving method was journalist and professor Norman Cousins. According to the Wikipedia entry "…late in life Cousins was diagnosed with a form of arthritis then called Marie-Strumpell's disease (now called Ankylosing Spondylitis--although this diagnosis is currently in doubt). His struggle with this illness is detailed in the book and movie Anatomy of an Illness."

"Told that he had little chance of surviving, Cousins developed a recovery program incorporating megadoses of Vitamin C, along with a positive attitude, love, faith, hope, and laughter induced by Marx Brothers films. "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep," he reported. "When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval."

"Cousins died of heart failure on November 30, 1990 in Los Angeles, California, having survived years longer than his doctors predicted: he lived 10 years after his first heart attack, 16 years after developing his illness, and 26 years after his doctors first diagnosed his heart disease."

It's relatively easy to add humor to your everyday life and to use it as a means of coping with stressful events. Funny movies, comedy shows and videos are easily available through various forms of media outlets. Entire television channels devoted to humor, including Comedy Central and Cartoon Network, are widely available on cable and satellite television services. The Comedy Central website features streaming video of their television shows, as well as a large collection of jokes and stand-up comedy routines. Live stand-up comedy venues are also readily available in many larger cities. Humorous images are all over the web at sites like the popular I Can Has Cheeseburger?

Go Make a Difference

Refrain

Go make a dff'rence, we can make a diff'rence

Go make a diff'rence in the world

Go make a diff'rence we can make a diff'rence

Go make a diff'rence in the world

First We are the salt in the earth, called to let the people see

The love of God in you and me

We are the light of the world, not to be hidden, but be seen

Go make a diff'rence in the world

Second We are the hands of Christ, reaching out to those in need

The face of God for all to see

We are the spirit of hope, we are the voice of peace

I recall watching an interview with former President Bill Clinton about how he navigated difficulties of his impeachment, the post Presidency when people were criticizing his legacy and the travails of Hillary’s campaigns for President. His response surprised me, has stuck with me all these years. Clinton said he “kept score” of his record as Governor, as President, as head of the Clinton Foundation. Clinton recalled how he overhauled the Arkansas school system giving young people the opportunity to thrive, the way the economy was so strong when he was President, in particular the job and wage growth for minority populations, and the millions of lives the Clinton Foundation has saved through the delivery of drugs to persons living with HIV AIDS. I kept thinking, what a marvelous way to mitigate feelings of loss, disappointment, hurt and guilt. When you can look back and see that your life has positively affected the lives of others you know you made a difference and that sure and certain knowledge can rescue you from a long and cruel self-pity, a period that ultimately does no lasting good for you or anyone else.

Very, very few of us can point to “difference making” on the scale of a President but most of us can look back and see real “difference making”. These reflections do not excuse our mistakes or our need to revisit our past when we need to recalibrate some aspect of our mindset. There will always be time for looking in the mirror and making necessary changes. BUT self-pity robs us of our agency and our legacy. And knowing the good we’ve done can inspire us to do more. In my own case past “difference making” does not give me any feelings of righteous self-congratulation but it does halt the pity-party and ignite me to get back to serving a cause larger than self.

I define my life not by what I did but what I can do. But knowing what I did gives me the assurance I can do it again and that my mistakes do not define me. Our record of life is a mixed bag. Knowing the difference we make reminds us this human journey is worthwhile and worth “keep on keeping on”.

[The expression KEEP ON KEEPING ON often means to persist in one’s efforts, persevere in the face of discouragement or misfortune, hang in there, don’t quit, keep on going. According to Cassell’s Dictionary or Slang, the expression dates back to the 1910s. It was, and still is, a popular saying, in religious circles for example, and was at one time (according to Eric Partridge – A Dictionary of Slang) a common exhortation of the Salvation Army.]

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What we need from each other

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What do you need to be happy in your work/volunteer assignment? I know many persons who need to be affirmed, need to be acknowledged, need to know someone appreciates the time, talent and tenacity of their effort. But not everyone lives for those strokes of praise. Others need to know their work is being utilized for a larger cause, that the accumulated offering of the staff and volunteer team is being woven into something that makes a difference. Then there are workers who need to know someone is in charge, that rules are being followed, and that there is order and process being observed. And there are those who need to know that they will have opportunity to be creative, to express themselves in their work, to bring an authentic part of themselves into the work they are engaged in.

Different workers need different messages from their workplaces. I see it all the time. A worker or volunteer will be very happy at her/his workspace and another worker/volunteer is highly critical of their workspace and they find themselves working side by side, for their same organization, doing almost the same job. How is that possible? Is it because one is favored by that organization over the other? Not likely. More often it is because what one employee or volunteer values in their relationship to their work another has no connection to. Again, both workers may be receiving frequent praise making one the happiest worker alive and the other rolling her/his eyes at the comments as they totally miss the mark, work is not about being valued, it is about doing something that has value.

The key in workplaces is to find out what everyone values, needs, to feel connected and be considerate in offering this carrot. This approach takes time, it requires listening and it focuses on follow-up and regular demonstrations of this genuine effort. I can hear a number of workers and volunteers saying “yup” and “of course” and “there you go” as they read these words. BUT many of these same people will assume that their need, for praise and affirmation, is what EVERYONE needs, like somehow what they need and think is identical to all the other “normal” people. They are wrong. For exactly the same reason that these folks need their affirmation there are many other workers and volunteer who need their “search for meaningful work” or obvious chain of command and rules or that opportunity to be as creative as their imagination will allow. These itches need to be scratched and need to be respected.

Of course some people go to work to make relationship. I remember hearing a military officer tell me that no matter how many times soldiers may be reminded of their patriotism or sense of tradition what usually get them to do the impossible and put their lives at risk for others is their sisterhood or brotherhood with their platoon, their unit. Unit cohesiveness is key to morale and morale is key to a well-oiled machine. Again, different people have different motivations and need different feedback to keep offering productive work.

Do yourself a favour and think all day today on what you need to be happy at work or at your volunteer placement. Ask someone else what s/he needs. Have a conversation about how we offer different feedback and approaches to different people. And then celebrate the community you are working to build and to thrive.

The Sacrament of Baptism

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“We taste the mystery of God’s great love for us, and are renewed in faith and hope.” (A Song of Faith)

The United Church celebrates two sacraments: baptism and communion.

A sacrament is a symbolic action, or ritual, by which people of faith encounter the presence and goodness of God. In a sacrament, ordinary things like water, bread, and wine are used to point us to God and God’s love, reminding us of the sacred in life. In the United Church, we celebrate two sacraments: baptism, the ritual that formally recognizes we belong to the Christian community, and communion, a symbolic meal initiated by Jesus. These sacraments are of central importance to our faith.

In company with the churches

 of the Reformed and Methodist traditions,

 we celebrate two sacraments as gifts of Christ:

 baptism and holy communion.

 In these sacraments the ordinary things of life

—water, bread, wine—

point beyond themselves to God and God’s love,

 teaching us to be alert

 to the sacred in the midst of life. (A Song of Faith)

Baptism

Baptism is a symbolic action that signifies the new life God gives us as we join the church community. Baptism uses water as a symbolic cleansing that signifies the acceptance of new life within the church family. The sacrament of baptism is the single rite of initiation into the Christian community, the church.

The United Church offers baptism to all ages. We believe the gift of God's love doesn't depend on our ability to understand it, so we baptize people as infants right up through adulthood. With children, instruction is given to parents or sponsors to equip them for the child's Christian nurture. During the ceremony, which usually takes place as part of a regular worship service, everyone in the congregation pledges support for the child and their parents.

If you are seeking baptism for yourself or your child, please speak to your minister or contact a United Church near you.

Baptism by water in the name of the Holy Trinity

 is the means by which we are received, at any age,

 into the covenanted community of the church.

 It is the ritual that signifies our rebirth in faith

 and cleansing by the power of God.

 Baptism signifies the nurturing, sustaining,

 and transforming power of God’s love

 and our grateful response to that grace. (A Song of Faith)

Baptism is not a requirement for God's love. We believe people who die without baptism are in no way condemned, lost, or damned.

Baptism in the United Church is recognized by all denominations of the Christian church that practise infant baptism. Similarly, if someone has already been baptized in another church at any age, the United Church recognizes their baptism and welcomes them as Christians.

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Remember your Baptism and be thankful!

I want to share a story with you, you may have heard it before. A family is riding home from church on Sunday. Their four-year-old son in the back seat of the car was baptized that morning. Suddenly, midway home, he bursts into tears. When his parents ask what on earth is wrong, he sniffles out the answer:  "The minister who baptized me said I would be brought up in a Christian home. But I want to stay with you guys!" OK, it’s an old one but I think it still has legs. On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday we have an opportunity to reflect on what exactly we think Baptism means, what effect this Sacrament has on us, what it means to our lives.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that the gospel writers believe Jesus’ Baptism is crucial.  Everything starts at the river where Jesus entered the waters and placed himself in the arms of his cousin John. "And the heavens were opened. And the Spirit descended upon him as a dove. And a Voice came from heaven saying, 'This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'" The ministry and teachings and trials and triumphs and almost all that make us remember Jesus took place after his baptism. While we do hear Angel voices in the birth stories God's voice spoke for the first time at the river, acknowledging that Jesus was claimed by Someone special and called to do something special. 

Well-known preacher The Rev. Dr. Michael Brown believes those words, “we belong to Someone special and we are called to do something special” are vitally important to understand our Christian call. At some point in time, a voice spoke your name and said, "This is My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased."  Perhaps you were only a baby when that happened, too small to understand the concept of God, too young to know that there even is a God. But that wasn't the point. Remember, Jesus didn't say or do anything at his baptism either. It was all done from the top down. It was all a matter of God claiming him, just as in your own baptism, God claimed you before you'd done a single thing to earn it. Paul Tillich was correct when he said that, "Salvation is simply accepting the fact that we have (already) been accepted."

In my pastoral visits I frequently meet with couples who tell me how they met and how much they, as partners, mean to each other. One common narrative is the one where a partner was at loose ends in life until the other partner came into his/her life and “everything changed”. You’ve likely heard this story before, “little by little, because I wanted to live up to her/his love, I became less and less troubled. Ever since we formalized our partnership I've spent my whole life trying to make him/her as happy as s/he made me. The truth is, s/he loved me into loving." There is a sense in most of our lives that we need someone or something to “love us into loving”. This gift is what we need to perpetuate “loving our neighbor as we love ourselves”. And while many of us may instantly reflect on who that person or persons have been for many that reflection may take some time. Knowing that God loves us, unconditionally, is an affirmation that makes all the difference.

God claims us and Baptism is a reminder that God sends unearned, unconditional love our way. When I hear “S/he loved me into loving” my mind goes to the theological language of grace, and nowhere is it more visibly symbolized than in Baptism. "This is My beloved child," whom this day I choose as my own, not by their merit, but by My mercy! That's what God said to Jesus at the river and what God says to you and me. I choose you as part of My family. I choose you to possess Divine legacy. I choose to "walk with you through the waters, and the rivers shall not overwhelm you…and to walk with you through the fire, and the flames shall not consume you…You are precious and honored in my sight, and I love you…So fear not, for I choose to be with you" in all things, in all times, in all places, in all circumstances, now and forever. I choose to love you whether or not you are always lovable. That's the message of Baptism, one which should grip and inspire us: It is a symbol that we are claimed by Someone special.

Baptism symbolizes that we are loved free of charge. Someone special claims us, asks us to be part of the family. "This is My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased."  And that act of grace loves us into loving. We remember our Baptism and are so overwhelmed by being claimed that we suddenly feel called. "The Spirit descends as a dove" and settles into our hearts, and we want to pay all the favors of grace forward, sharing with others the gift that has been shared with us.

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And so, on this Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, remember your Baptism…and live into your calling. Another way I might offer this reminder to you is with this evergreen bough. I intend to dip it into our Baptismal Font and sprinkle you with the waters of Baptism, receiving the Asperges or sprinkling with the baptismal water. I will do so many times, to ensure the waters have touched as many of you as possible. Each time I will proclaim, "Remember your baptism and be thankful." The "remembering" is about recommitment, the response to the gift of God’s love, a “loved me into loving”, a mission to love our neighbor as God first loved us.

Remember your Baptism and be thankful. God has loved us into loving. We belong to Someone special and we are called to do something special. God is good. Grace is unconditional. Love is a beautiful gift. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Following the Star

I’ve mentioned this comparison before but I want to repeat it, given the Epiphany Sunday we celebrate today. A wise friend of mine once compared how people from the eastern part of our world think/imagine and how people on the western part of our globe think/imagine. Most of us here today are creatures of western thought...