The Thought Whisperer

A few months ago, after I had taken communion to a shut-in member in a convalescent hospital, I started back to my car parked in a remote parking lot. As I walked, I was suddenly confronted by  a most terrifying sight. A pit bull, squared off, was staring menacingly at me from the middle of the roadway.


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My heart raced. My first instinct was to turn and run away. Instead of bolting, the thought came to me: “Stand tall! Make yourself big! Breathe in deeply! Relax!” I gave in to these ethereal instructions…

I made direct eye contact with the dog. I took in several breaths, and mercifully the fear began to lose its grip.

Emboldened, I made my stand before the dog. I became suddenly calm, and decided not to deviate from the direct path to my car. Strangely, I had no crippling thoughts about what might happen to me next. Instead I was fully present to that moment, continuing to breathe in deeply and calmly. Neither the pit bull nor I moved for what seemed like an eternal moment. I was able to maintain my ground, breathing deeply, standing erect. I was fully present, taking in the whole scene, not fixating on the intimidating canine.

Then, the dog simply walked away…

Suspended and perplexed by the epiphany of this unexpected calm and silent outcome, I continued the trek to my car and reflected on what had just happened.

Since that fateful day, I have wondered about the origin of these very thoughts that impelled me not to run away from the most feared breed of dog in urban America. I suspect that those thoughts arose from a number of sources, not the least of which was Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer.” About the time of the incident described above, I had been watching Millan’s hit TV show on National Geographic, titled “The Dog Whisperer.” Though his philosophy is disputed by some, Millan believes that dogs are pack animals. As such, a dog’s anxiety is roiled in the absence of a stable pack leader, one who maintains the pack’s essential hierarchy.


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According to Millan, most dog parents are unaware of this fundamental canine reality, namely that a dog is hardwired to both seek and maintain its position in a pack. Dog parents have no problem extending love and affection to their pets; however, they may overlook their dogs’ need for the vital discipline that must come from the human pack leader. This healthy pack-leader relationship is what a dog must have to feel secure in its world. Millan refers to this discipline structure as “Rules, boundaries, and limitations.”

Also, Millan points out that dog lovers are not aware of the energy behind the words with which they communicate to their animals. He explains that the ideal form of this energy from the human pack leader should always be “calm and assertive,” which when communicated through voice or actions, is most essential  to getting a dog to respect the pet parent as the pack leader.  According to Millan, rather than training the dogs, he “trains” people to better understand and care for their dogs in a more holistic way informed by love, affection and discipline—all facilitated through the calm assertion of the human pack leader.

Millan cautions that dog lovers must also be mindful of the energy behind the words directed at their pets. If such words are embedded in fear and anxiety, their dogs will sense this unstable psychic presentation. He teaches that a calm, confident, pet parent generates the optimal environment for a dog’s happiness. “It’s not the words you say,” Millan avers. “It’s the energy behind the words.”

It was with this calm assertive energy that I held my ground and communicated with that threatening pit bull…

The Hierarchy of Our Inner Thought Life

One can apply Cesar Millan’s philosophy to many instances of life where hierarchies matter. Parenting is one such example. Children require both love and discipline from a calm, assertive, benevolent hierarchy. The child who gets only love and no discipline becomes emotionally crippled, not prepared for the demands of adulthood. The child who receives only discipline and no love is equally crippled. It is wise parents who take the lead and provide their children with both love and discipline.

As with dogs and children, an even more important hierarchy is your own internal thought life.  The point of this article is that when you fail to recognize the power of this internal thought hierarchy, you ignore it to your own peril.

The highest part of you is Spirit/Self. This is your true self. This is the self that you have lived with all your life. It functions to steer you in the right direction. It is the inner voice of profound intuition that is in contact with you and God. It wants the very best for you. Some call it conscience; others, the higher self. Reigning in the heart in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians call it Christ.

The True Self is confident. It is calm and assertive. The True Self is the Thought Whisperer, the power that desires to govern the inferior parts of the interior self in a calm, assertive manner. The more investment in this Self yields empowerment over the lesser parts of your interior life.


“The True Self is confident.  It is calm and assertive…” Photo courtesy of

What are the lesser parts of your interior life that must be led by you?

They are your emotions.

Every great religion identifies your emotional life as the enemy within that you must seek to master. Your emotional life is the very source of confusion and deception. It is the darkness that needs both light and enlightenment. Your emotional life is the deposit of all your pain that seeps out when anxiety roils in your heart. Christians call it the flesh, the sinful nature, the false self. When it usurps the lead, it creates enmity, bitterness, rancor, hatred, addiction, compulsions of every type, and slavery. It is a deep well over which you have no power. You can never be free of it. These very feelings and emotions have their own life and they must run their course. To repress them and pretend that they do not exist is to invite other surreptitious ways by which they create chaos in your life.

Though you may never master the lower self of your interior life, you can certainly allow the Thought Whisperer to govern it.

The language of the Thought Whisperer is calm assertion. It is the way of intentionality. Every moment that presents itself offers you the choice to be led by the Thought Whisperer or to be led by your lower self.

What are the signs that you are being led by your higher self or lower self?

Matthew Williams, MD, author of the blog Mindfulness, MD, can enlighten us in distinguishing whether we are led by our Higher Self (a.k.a. Thought Whisperer) or our lower self.  In an article titled “Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Default Mode Network, Meditation, and Mindfulness,” Dr. Williams speaks of the “Default Mode Network (DMN).” It is the state of inattention to the world around you. He calls it the state of daydreaming, being generally ruminative about life. As believed, it is not typically a productive state; such inattention and mindlessness can produce a confluence of negative emotions. Dr. Williams connects this state with depression, denoting that people with mental illness are dominated by the Default Mode Network.Matt Blog

However, the DMN is not all bad. It serves the good; but like every good, it can be a virtue or a vice. The DMN is a virtue in so far as it allows us to review our lives and thereby change the course of our lives. According to Dr. Williams, this is a well-balanced use of the DMN. The DMN wreaks havoc, however, when it is relied upon to escape the pain of life through a preoccupation with one’s thoughts and feelings. Such preoccupation is the wheelhouse of anxiety. This is the realm of the lower self.

To positively balance the DMN, Dr. Williams explains the role of the “Task-Positive Network (TPN).” The TPN directs your attention to the external environment. Instead of being inattentive to the external world, the person led by the TPN is engaged. She is present. She is mindful of her internal bodily states and exerts her will informed by intentionality. When you are mindful of your body in your environment, when you are attentive to the smells of a spring walk, when you focus on your conversation with your beloved, then, according to Dr. Williams, your TPN made that possible.

At a retreat last Lent, I counseled a retreatant whose psychiatrist helped her to get out of the depths of depression by helping her to make one little change a day. His goal was to get her out of the house into the fresh air. He began by encouraging her on the first day to walk to the front door of her home. The next day, she was encouraged to open the door and stand in the doorway for just a moment. A few days later, she took a step outside. Then she walked to the driveway. The next day, she walked down the street. Now she is running marathons. Here was the TPN in operation.

One of the tools of the Thought Whisperer, your Higher Self, is indeed the Task-Positive Network. The TPN marshals the powers of intentionality, attentionality, and mindfulness.

Described here are two strategies to engage the TPN, one being a quick access and one that takes more time to cultivate…

Quick Access to the TPN:

There are many methods that may be used to take immediate control over negative, destructive thoughts—all have in common the sudden shifting of awareness, thus derailing the negative thoughts coming from the false, unconscious self.

To continue our Cesar Millan example, when a dog unconsciously reverts to bad behavior, Millan uses a strong vocal cue, “PHSSSTTT!!,” to achieve what he describes as snapping the dog’s mind out of the very state that produced the bad behavior. Through the pack leader’s role and authority, the dog is brought back to the present and out of the compulsion of mindlessness.

Pack Leadership Technique 3- Establish rules, boundaries and limitations

“…when a dog unconsciously reverts to bad behavior, Millan uses a strong vocal cue, “PHSSTT!!…” Photo courtesy of

For a fuller context on the topic of quickly accessing the TPN, again we turn to Dr. Williams and his article hosted on Psychology Today‘s online site, “The Dangers of a Wandering Mind.” He provides two such methods which serve to instantly regain a state of mindfulness:

The next time that you are walking into work, briefly pause and complete the Five by Five exercise. The Five by Five exercise entails taking mental note of five items as perceived by each of your five senses. The exercise will purposefully engage you in focused thought and help you reconnect with your surroundings.

Another exercise is called the Take Ten. At some point during your day when you are feeling particularly distracted, I would challenge you to pause and take ten deep breaths. The power of this exercise is proportional to the amount of focus that you bring to your breathing. Focus on the cool sensation at the tip of your nose as you slowly inhale, the neutral point between your inhale and exhale, and the warmth upon exhale. (There are many more exercises that use mindfulness to engage focused thought, and I would recommend that the interested reader enter “mindfulness exercises” into his or her search engine of choice.)

Cultivating  Fuller Engagement with the TPN Through Mindful Breathing:

Focused meditation on your breath, a practice historically employed through the ages by mystics, is the way the ancients employed the power of the TPN. Your intentional deep breaths funnel the powers of the TPN in any given moment, for your intentional breathing places you firmly in the moments of your life.


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The telling metaphor of intentionality, attentionality, and mindfulness is the breath. It is the access to the Higher Self. Your breath invites the Thought Whisperer to lead the disparate parts of your lower self—your emotional self, your fragmented self, your historic self, your false self, your lower, your inferior self–that must be led. In the book of Job, Job says, “The breath (spirit) of God is in the mouth.” God, as the source of empowerment, is in the breath.

Besides Cesar Millan, it was the very breath (Spirit) of God that quelled my anxiety in face of that pit bull. Breath (Spirit) was the Thought Whisperer that gave me courage, empowerment and enlightenment.

Would to God that we so discipline ourselves in practices that develop our own Thought Whisperer so that we may better deal with the “pit bulls” of our thought lives.

Principle 8 for Achieving Balance- You create the dogGÇÖs calm, submissive state

“…so that we may better deal with the “pit bulls” of our thought lives.”                                Photo courtesy of

“…we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

2 Corinthians 10:5


What’s Your Selma?

A sermon given on The Confession of St. Peter and based on Mark 8:27-35

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The film Selma is a poignant portrayal of the machinations behind the passage of the Voters’ Rights Act of 1965. To bring about this landmark legislation, lives were lost and reputations soiled.  There was every indication that Dr. Martin Luther King should not have pushed President Johnson on federal legislation that would alter the political culture of the South.  First and foremost, King had no support from Johnson. Secondly, a putative march through rural Alabama to pressure the political establishment was a grave risk in view of the inflammatory speech of George Wallace, governor of the state of Alabama. And finally, King’s family tugged at his heartstrings: he was exposing them to terror and death.

At the conclusion of his iconic I Have a Dream speech in Washington in 1963, King was arguably the most admired man in America.  In 1964 he was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize and thereby received international acclaim for himself and the movement of which he was the titular head.  After those two great honors, King could have rested on his laurels.  He could have parlayed his reputation into a pastorate of a college town where he could have taught occasionally and published books.

Yet, there was another destiny driving him, an inexorable destiny from which he could not deviate. That destiny drove King to make the great confession to America from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.  He had to put the Voting Rights Act in the larger American context.

That larger American context was the abuse of power.

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“He had to put the Voting Rights Act in the larger American context…” Photo courtesy of

Powerful monied interests in the South foisted a wedge between blacks and whites. Monied interests promoted competition between the two groups to keep wages low. King proclaimed that it was monied interests that destroyed the Populist Movement after the Civil War, a movement that held up the hope for a better life for blacks and poor whites.  According to King, monied interests took the world from black folks and gave them Jesus.  They took the world from poor white folks and gave them Jim Crow laws that made them feel good about being white, though they were as poor as church mice.

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“King called on religious leaders from around the country to come to Selma…” Photo courtesy of

King called on religious leaders from around the country to come to Selma to march and expose this abuse of power, which was foundational to slavery and crippling racism since the Reconstruction.  How else does one explain that only 7% of whites owned slaves in the South; and, yet, this 7% had a strangle hold on the federal government since its founding.  Powerful monied interests created a caste system in the South that endured into the 1960’s.  They gave whites a convenient scapegoat for their bad feelings about their economic misery.

King’s Selma speech was one that he had to make. The calling on his life conspired to put him in that place and time to call out the economic interest at the root of racism and discrimination.  King’s Selma speech is arguably his greatest speech because of its hard-hitting social and economic commentary on America.

It was a speech that King had to give; it was a confession that he had to make.

What’s your Selma? 

Selma is a metaphor for something that you are compelled to do.  Your calling in life has placed you on a trajectory from which you cannot deviate.  You feel compelled to act, to speak, to respond. You know that if you do not grab hold of your Selma moment, you will be less a person; you will have missed out on real transformation.  St. Peter had a Selma moment. His Selma moment was to make a confession like King.  Peter was inspired to reveal the real identity of Christ, that he was not merely a man, a prophet, or a rabbi, but the Son of God.

In the text under consideration (Mark 8:27-35), Jesus and his disciples were walking in the region of Caesarea Philippi.  No mention of a name in the Bible is ever superfluous.  Every city name associated with the ministry of Jesus has meaning. It is profoundly significant where Peter is compelled by the Spirit to make the great confession of Jesus’ identity.

Just as Selma was the right place and the right time for Dr. Martin Luther King to make his confession, making it in the heartland of racial bigotry and hatred, so Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God is in the headquarters of Roman power in Palestine.

Caesarea Philippi was the provincial capital of Palestine.  It was where Pontius Pilate, the governor, ruled mercilessly, garnering a reputation as a cruel and tyrannical ruler.  Caesarea Philippi was the seat of Roman power, a visible reminder to Jews that they were a subjugated people.  In the horizon of Rome’s power in Palestine, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  He got various answers: “You are Elijah”; “You are one of the prophets.”  Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter says, “You are the Christ!”  In Hebrew and Aramaic, “You are the Messiah!”

In making that statement, Peter is risking his life. It was a capital crime punishable by death to claim that someone other than Herod the Great or one of his heirs was the Messiah. To name someone else as the Messiah was to create disorder.  Romans abhorred disorder.  Later Jesus would be charged with fomenting disorder.  The Romans discouraged disorder with violent forms of torture and execution like crucifixion.  Nevertheless, in the presence of Roman power and defiance of it, the Holy Spirit empowers Peter to call Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.

In Peter’s confession, we see the nature of a calling from God. A calling is not to be denied.  It is not to be intimidated; it is inexorable.  A calling from God will use whatever unlikely people and circumstances to express itself, to reveal its truths to humanity.  It especially works in the people who are open to receive it and view life and the world from another perspective to remake it according to God’s values of love, justice and mercy.  Such people are courageous.  Even the Romans have to admire the courage of such people who speak and act in support of ideas for which they were willing to die. A church father noted that the church is built on the blood of the martyrs. The martyrs were people like Peter inspired by the Spirit to declare Jesus as the Christ, to declare that he is a better way to live.  He is the source of the abundant life.  Martyrs have the courage to stand in the corridors of power and declare that Jesus is the Christ.

Jesus as the Christ proffers a different understanding of power. After Peter is empowered to make the great confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus begins to teach what kind of messiah he would be.  He would be a different messiah than the one generally understood by the people in his day.  He would be a different messiah because he would use power differently.  He would not exploit people to bolster an earthly kingdom, which always ensues from a bloodily use of power.  Rome uses power to dehumanize people and enslave them.  Rome uses power to steal wealth and human potential from vulnerable people. This is what empires do. The Assyrians, the first empire of the ancient Near East, toppled Israel in 722 B.C.E. with their scorched-earth policy.  After the Assyrians, the Babylonians carted off with the talent and wealth of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E.

The Persians became ascendant and displaced the Babylonians as the next imperial power. They allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.  Some returned; most stayed in Babylon, however. The ones who returned to Judah rebuilt the temple with Iranian money. The Persian policy of funding subjugated peoples to build up their religious institutions was not done out of the goodness of the Persians’ heart. This was part and parcel of an ideology that proved more effective and less costly at controlling subjugated peoples than with troops.

The Greeks toppled the Persians and became the imperial world power. Under Antiochus IV in the second century B.C.E. the Greeks sponsored state terrorism, whose intent was to totally destroy the Jewish people.  The Roman Empire of Jesus’ day was the latest avatar of abusive power that dehumanized Jewish people, long familiar with the feeling of being in the crosshairs of abusive power.  Jesus as messiah stands against this use of power. He teaches his disciples that potentates of the world lord over others with power. The disciples of Jesus were not to mimic such abuse of power. Jesus’ disciples were to use power to serve people, to thereby empower others to reach their potential as humans.  On Maundy Thursday, Jesus gives a telling example of his understanding of power when he washes his disciples’ feet. So, they were to use their power to serve and empower others. In the process of serving, you transform others and yourself.  Your Selma moment is when you are impelled to serve, to use power in a transformative way like Jesus. In so doing, you are invited to transform and be transformed.

There is nothing more offensive than when religious people use power to hurt and to maim.  When Dr. King called for religious leaders to come to Selma in support of voters’ rights legislation, he touched their consciences. Many responded, because they knew the sins of the church. They knew historically how power was used to dehumanize and the church was witting or unwitting accomplices in support of a dehumanizing status quo.

Many understood that King confronted them with their own Selma moment, a call to go speak, transform and be transformed as a way to redeem the sins of the past.

Yet, there were many religious leaders who could not see God’s hand in the Civil Rights Movement. For them, Selma was not a transformative moment. They were quite content with the status quo, because they and their people were not being hurt. So, some took refuge in a two-kingdom theology that proved merely to be a hovel of the cowardly. They thought that by ignoring Selma they were being faithful to their theological values and commitments expressed in their presumed two-kingdom theory when it was really their cultural isolation and separatism that informed their failure to respond to Selma.

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I shall never forget that on the weekend that Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, my beloved pastor who confirmed me at the age 14 never mentioned the death of King. There was no prayer offered up in behalf of the civil rights leader.  It was as though that tragic event never happened and had no relevance whatsoever for his congregation.

I suspect that that quietism over King’s assassination was duplicated many times over throughout the church body to which I belong. God, however, is never left without a witness…

For the many quietistic pastors who saw the Civil Rights Movement merely as a political phenomenon, there were many others who saw more.  My childhood Episcopalian priest, Father Nale, had the eyes to see more in the Civil Rights Movement than what was apparent on the surface.  He heard King’s call to religious leaders to come to Selma and march. Father Nale left his parish in the heart of South Central Los Angeles to heed King’s call.  He marched with King.  It was his Selma moment to transform and to be transformed through a bold confession that power can be used to serve and heal.  Our Selma moments arise when we come to the realization that our own power can be used to transform others and ourselves in service to them; this is a use of power in service of redemptive love.

Where power serves redemptive love, profound reversals of the status quo occur.  The preeminent reversal of the status quo is that of the sinner to saint in the experience of the forgiveness of sins.

A reversal occurs when we pray for our enemies and those who spitefully abuse us.

A reversal of the status quo occurs when we choose to forgive others.

Our hearts get freed of bitterness and rancor.

Finding Your Selma

A profound reversal of your personal status quo occurs when you practice contemplation. Contemplation makes you adept at not tying yourself to the ideologies of this world, as you learn to let go of all thoughts and feelings and thereby refuse to give them more value than they ought to have.

Thoughts generated by mindlessness should never be given value.

Most thoughts have their nativity in mindlessness, when we are not focused. Redemptive love that serves is never mindless. For, redemptive love is an exertion of your conscious self to express such love, as it is not natural to love in this way. To love redemptively demands your attention, your mindfulness.  The ego has another way to love that is turned inward to serve itself.

Contrary to the ego’s love, you consciously exert your will to choose to love redemptively as Jesus teaches.  It takes courage and volitional power to demonstrate redemptive love that reverses your limited worldview, your personal status quo, which is the home of the ego. Contemplation is the daily practice of expanding that status quo, pushing it out beyond the parameters of its theological justifications and rationalizations.

Theology can serve the oppressor as well as the oppressed. The key issue is whether theology serves redemptive love.

Your Selma moment is the invitation to go beyond the power games of the ego to a redemptive love that elicits you to serve and thereby experience transformation.

Your Selma compels you to use power to serve and to love in a redemptive way.

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Spirit and Synchronicity

He's been there for me forever

“His death left a void in her heart…”

A member of my congregation wanted to share with our prayer group an experience that she found most comforting, but was hesitant for fear of what others might think. She is an elderly woman who lost her husband the year before. His death left a void in her heart, a void that even her adult children and grandchild could not fill.

Speaking haltingly, she told the prayer group that she had a dream about her husband. She looked at each of us as though seeking our affirmation before continuing, and opted to take the risk and share her experience:

“I saw my husband in the back of the church. He was smiling; his aura was brilliant. I was in the front of the church working in the pews like I usually do on Fridays, getting things ready for Sunday. He didn’t startle me, but rather, I felt a real calm. It gave me so much joy to be with him again in the church.”

That was all she shared about her dream.

She smiled nervously, awaiting a response from the people in the prayer group who had gathered that Vigil of Pentecost Eve to pray together.  She most certainly took a risk by stepping out of the box to share her experience with us.  This traditional, Lutheran woman deviated far from her comfort zone and, because of the nature of this mystical experience, she felt vulnerable.

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In my experience as a pastor for 30 years, many people have confided in me this same type of experience and I have no doubt that they happen with frequency in traditional churches throughout America.  People are having spiritual experiences they cannot understand, and these experiences are deeply meaningful and spiritually impactful.

Not having the words or theological categories to articulate such experiences, some people feel like odd balls when they relate them to their communities of faith.

Bereft of the proper theological framing for the experience, many keep to themselves their brushes with reality, which are profoundly meaningful and even mystical.  They are inclined not to share such experiences with their pastors for fear that they may be judged as theologically unorthodox or doctrinally unsound.  Or, their experiences are so meaningful that they keep them from their pastors for fear that their well-intentioned, spiritual leaders might dogmatically explain away an experience that is deeply meaningful.

The experience becomes their special secret, confirming that God can do infinitely more than we could ever imagine.

This begs the question: how might a doctrinally-sound pastor respond to this woman’s story about her dream? The conversation could go like this:

“Your dream is interesting. Dreams are strange things, aren’t they?  Who can understand them?  Your husband is in heaven with Christ, assured of his victory over death through the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection is your assurance that your beloved is alive in Christ.  Don’t fixate on the dream.  Fixate instead on the objective word.  That is your assurance.”

Of course this is true. Indeed it is the word of God that informs the cultural and psychic context that makes that dream even possible for this woman.  The image of the church, oneness in Christ with her husband, and the joy of working in the church that has been the anchor of their lives were all prompted by the Word.  The dream is her subjective expression of what she knows objectively through the Word.

But could this conversation from a pastor rob her of her experience?

These subjective, mystical experiences happen more often than we pastors think, and here is the rub…

We pride ourselves in making everything nice and objective so that we can control it.

We are quite adept at handling the objective reality.  That’s our currency in traditional churches.  At the same time, however, our subjective experiences have no context in traditional churches. We concede this subjective sphere of our lives to late night dinners, demons, and two-bit pandering psychics because we are uncomfortable with the spiritual and mystical experiences that may arise from the subjective realm.

I shall never forget what happened during a retreat I conducted at a Southern California abbey for members of my church. I had just finished doing a Lectio Divina exercise with the retreatants.  Afterwards, I invited them to share what God conveyed to each of them in this spiritual exercise.  A young man commented on what he had experienced.  He said he saw the sun, bright and warm.  As he gazed on its brilliance, a dove emerged from the sun, descended and landed on him. The symbolism was obvious, informed by the John 1:4 text on which we had just meditated, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

It was a powerful experience for him and the other retreatants concurred.

However, later that evening, an avalanche of thoughts that discredited the experience hit the young man.  He got the impression that he was doing something illicit by entertaining such a vision.  It was as if he had betrayed his allegiance to the objective word of God.  His culture and tradition had failed him—not being broad enough to accommodate this type of spiritual experience. He felt vulnerable by stepping outside the box in the manner in which he did.

I consoled him by encouraging him to rethink his reaction. I helped him to understand that his experience was not a threat, but instead a place of inspiration. It was the place of art and creativity.  We would not have Bach’s cantatas without such a place of inspiration.  The visual art that inspires us and heightens our devotion to Christ comes from the heart, that very same place of subjectivity.

Why do we fear this kind of mystical experience?

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We are adept at dealing with what we believe is the objectivity of our religion, namely Word and Sacraments; but we are less adept at dealing with the subjectivity of it, namely the spiritual center, which invites us to learn the language and the movements of the heart in addition to the head.

We fear the heart and don’t trust it; we believe that it is woefully corrupt according to Jeremiah.  Yet, the heart, the center of the subjective sphere, is where we, together with the Holy Spirit, wage battle against the concupiscence (proclivity to evil) that remains in the heart subsequent to Baptism. The daily dying to this proclivity through repentance initiates spiritual movements of the Spirit in the heart, which create beauty that informs worship and devotion to God.

We must be OK with dealing with the heart and its stirrings; we must be OK with the subjectivity of the heart, indeed the unique way that God communicates to us in peace, love and joy, the very contours of beauty.

When you engage in spiritual practices like contemplation that silent your inner self-dialogue and other people’s dialogues in your head, you make room for God to expand your experience of reality.  One of the benefits of contemplation is that you begin to pay attention to the life around you, which you are all too prone to ignore when you are only in your head.  By spending too much time in our heads and being beset by a multitude of thoughts, we miss out on life; we fail to see its deeper connections.

As your restless mental activity is gradually silenced through the practice of contemplation, you are empowered to see more.  The universe comes to life.  You can appreciate beauty in all its manifestations.


Synchronicity is the ability to meaningfully connect unrelated events, people and things. It breaks down barriers, it stirs things up—it wakes you out of your “dogmatic slumber.”

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The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) proffered the concept of synchronicity as a worldview to account for both the linear causality of the mechanistic world and the non-linear, non-causal world of meaning.  According to Jung, things can be causally connected; however, they can also be meaningfully connected.  Coupling Jung’s concepts with Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum psychics, synchronicity opens up the universe, making it come to life, making it a mysterious place that throws into doubt ironclad religious and scientific dogma.

Synchronicity gives you a glimpse into the world outside space and time, whose currency is meaning. It is in this resultant synchronicity that the causal world and non-causal world interlock and interpenetrate each other.

Synchronicity is best experienced and not talked about.  You know it when you see it.  Who hasn’t had the experience of thinking of someone and a moment later, that very person calls you on the phone.  Or, perhaps you had a dream that you forgot about in the morning that you remembered at the right time later on in the day.  At just the right moment, the dream gave you enlightenment about a situation that you were dealing with, yielding an “aha moment.” These experiences have a way of opening you up to other possibilities, breaking you out of the mechanistic linear world of cause and effect, from which vantage point we think that we might somehow control life.

Howard Thurman, the spiritual and theological mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, relates the story of his ardent desire to attend college as a boy.  In the early 20th century, his impoverished African-American family could not afford such a luxury, as indeed most Americans couldn’t in those days.  To cover their shame of being poor, his family tried to steer him in another direction.  But he could not be deterred.  He decided to apply to Morehouse College upon graduation from high school. When he boarded that bus from his home in Florida bound for Atlanta, he had no idea how he would pay for a college education.

When he arrived on campus, surprisingly Thurman discovered that his tuition, room, board and all fees were paid in full.  His poor circumstances, his desire to attend college and the provision of the money were not accidently connected; they synchronistically became deeply and meaningfully related in Thurman’s mind and heart.

Meaning can be a powerful nexus among people, things and events. There need not be an explanation in terms of cause and effect…

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Another Member’s Experience

I have a member of my congregation who lost her father when she was 5 years old, a vulnerable age.  She told me about an experience she recently had while watching a TV program about a woman who also had lost her father as a small child.  The woman spoke of the impact of not being raised with a father, how it skewed her perspective on men.  Strongly identifying with the woman’s story, my member was touched deeply; she couldn’t take her eyes off the TV.

All of a sudden, the TV turned off.  Even though it was a still and warm spring evening, a small gale of wind blew through her opened sliding door, and she felt it on her face.  Attached to her patio cover, there was a wind chime with a central clapper surrounded by five elongated chimes.  Rather than the usual way a wind chime rings, the capricious gale wind did not ring all five chimes randomly.  Instead, only one chime tone rang distinctively and repeatedly for several moments.

The cutting off of the TV, the small gale wind, and the repeated ringing of one chime tone were not causally related.  As she told the story to me, my member was able to give value and meaning to the experience by relating the circumstances to each other as a single orchestrated, synchronistic event.

She was able to recognize and appreciate the spiritual synchronicity present in her experience.

A disciplined practice in contemplation teaches you to appreciate both the causal world and the world of meaning by teaching you to live and rest in both by conditioning you to be fully open and available to both.  No dualism!

You learn to negotiate in the world of cause and effect and yet be open to the mystery of the world of meaning, which is foundational to beauty.

Your eyes get opened, and you see more connections in the schema where the spiritual world interpenetrates the material one.

In short, you achieve a spiritual synchronicity, and the vehicle that enables you to create meaning is the Holy Spirit.  You learn that what may seem like a set of random events instead becomes related meaningfully to you through the Holy Spirit.

On the first Pentecost after Easter, an outsider looking at the group of 120 disciples of Jesus in prayer would have felt the wind, seen the tongues of fire and the subsequent ecstasy, empowerment and boldness of that motley group of illiterate Galileans. However, without the Holy Spirit, the disinterested outsider would not have been able to meaningfully connect that random set of events as the profound transformation of Jesus’ disciples that would alter their tragedy-laden consciousness and empower them to change the course of human history.

The Holy Spirit meaningfully connects seemingly random events that are non-causally related, thereby luring us to be in conformity with Christ. Authentic spiritual experiences are made so by the Holy Spirit.

If a spiritual experience opens you up more to Christ and you become like him in a life informed by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then that experience was tailor-made for you.  Who am I to dogmatically argue away such an experience that is deeply meaningful to you?

One of the many fruits of contemplation is that you give up the desire to argue and fight, insisting that things must go your way.  You come to see that God has the whole universe with which to communicate to humanity.  And, in God’s time, God can be most convincing.

The Spirit gives you eyes to synchronistically see.  Be open and ready to receive.

Pastor Tim in the sanctuary at St. Luke Lutheran Church

Pastor Tim in the sanctuary at St. Luke Lutheran Church


The Mindful Christ

The film Gravity is a spiritual tour de force.  Sandra Bullock plays the part of “Dr. Ryan Stone,” a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission to space.  The commander of her shuttle crew is “Matt Kowalski,” played by George Clooney.  While on a space walk, debris from an exploding, Russian satellite destroys the shuttle.  Dr. Stone and Commander Kowalski are the sole survivors of their shuttle crew.  They are completely alone in space.  They are tethered to nothing but each other, spiraling in the darkness of space.

I believe that Commander Kowalski is a Christ figure in the film.  He is curious, calm, centered and collected under pressure.  The veteran astronaut appreciates the beauty of the cosmos as though he were seeing it for the first time. In the end, like Christ, he accepts his death with equanimity, trusting that he would die into something bigger than himself.

"I believe that Commander Kowalski is a Christ figure in the film.  He is curious, calm, centered, and collected under pressure." Photo courtesy of

“I believe that Commander Kowalski is a Christ figure in the film. He is curious, calm, centered, and collected under pressure.”
Photo courtesy of

Dr. Stone, all alone, tries to get to the International Space Center and from there to the Chinese Space Center.  Facing one crisis after another, in a most poignant scene in the film, in a fetal position Dr. Stone cries, “No one taught me to pray!  I wish someone had taught me how to pray.”

“No one taught me to pray!  I wish someone had taught me how to pray.”  Photo courtesy of

“No one taught me to pray! I wish someone had taught me how to pray.”
Photo courtesy of

Amid all the technological wizardry, Dr. Stone’s spontaneous burst of human emotion reveals that the human heart has needs that the head will never understand.  Her cry is an indictment against a whole generation of parents who have taken a laissez-faire approach to their children’s spiritual development, not intentionally inculcating in their children spiritual traditions.  Many Christian parents have not even taught their children the Lord’s Prayer.

Dr. Stone’s cry indicts the church in the West, which has not taught people how to pray in a way that is enriching, in a way that would give them a sense of gravitas in the world, especially as they face life’s endemic pain.  Churches have been more concerned with institutional matters that keep them solvent and growing numerically.  They have been more obsessed with what to believe than how to live.  Christianity has long been a theologically-laden religion.  It is for this reason that it comes off as arcane and inaccessible in our postmodern world.

The preponderance of theology and right thinking has gotten in the way of living mindfully in the present with a sense of joy and satisfaction that every moment brings.  Christianity too often looks back at the fall of Adam and Eve and ahead to the end of the world, when everything will have been made right.  Too often we have forgotten about the dash between the beginning and the end.  That dash between the beginning and the end matters because God became a man in Christ Jesus.  That dash is validated by the incarnation of the Son of God.  How we live matters.  Jesus is not only Cristus victor over sin, death and the devil.  He is also Cristus victor over life.  He shows us how to live.

Can we emulate how Jesus lived?

I have recently come across a counseling method that has enriched my pastoral counseling and affirmed my long-held thought that everyone’s psyche yearns for healing and wholeness.  Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, combines the therapeutic model of family systems theory with the view that the mind, rather than being a single entity, is instead made up of various parts with their own viewpoints and ways of expressing themselves.  IFS therapy tries to understand how the various parts are organized to protect the psychic system from pain.

In the IFS model, there are three main parts that most people have.  First, there are the exiles.  These parts are informed by lingering pain, shame or hurt from childhood.  Second, there are the managers.  Managers are protective parts that keep the pain of the exiles from coming to the forefront of consciousness, so we can manage our daily lives and get through them with a semblance of order.  And, third, there are the firefighters.  Firefighters avoid the pain of the exiles through compulsive acting out.

Both manager and firefighter parts are protective in nature. Firefighters cause a variety of rash behaviors from drinking binges to inappropriate sexual behavior, or any other compulsion that tries to extinguish the pain of the exiles. In my case, when I feel pain surging in my psyche, my firefighter impels me eat a carton of ice cream. Firefighters try to keep the pain and shame of the exile parts from coming to consciousness.

Everyone’s mind is configured in such a way to avoid pain and trauma; however, there cannot be any meaningful and authentic spiritual growth without facing the pain that is endemic to being human in this chaotic world. To engage your own pain is what it means to pick up your cross and follow Christ, and in the IFS model, that is where the “Self” comes into play.

In the IFS model, Dr. Schwartz identifies the spiritual center as the “Self.”  The therapist’s job is to get people to unblend from their protective parts in order to allow the pain of the exile to come into contact with the healing compassion of the Self. Our parts with their various agendas are a source of so much mindlessness. Rather than responding mindfully to a given situation, too often we are instead reacting in one of our parts.  To the extent that we do, we are limited, not living fully from our true, authentic Self.

What does the Self look like?  It looks like a person who has been long engaged in mystical and spiritual practices.  It looks grounded and wise.  It has a definite personality, a modus operandi. The true self can be characterized by what Schwatz calls the “Spiritual C’s”: calm, curiosity, compassion, confidence, clarity, courage, creativity, connectedness, centeredness, capacity for choice and communion.  The Spiritual C’s are the product of a regular, disciplined spiritual practice that is authentic. They produce a mindful person, fully available in the moment to oneself and others.  The Spiritual C’s are what mindful people look like; it is how they live.

“Matt Kowalsky” in Gravity was the epitome of a person informed by the Spiritual C’s.  He was a most compelling figure as are all contemplative types.  Did Jesus look and live like a person informed by the Spiritual C’s?  Of course.  The Gospel of John reveals that Jesus had these qualities. Granted, you will not find a spiritual practice in the Gospel of John that would foster mindfulness, but you will certainly find the Mindful Christ with whom you are invited to come into communion and be conformed through the energy of his Spirit in the sacramental life of the church.

Jesus certainly faced threats to himself and his ministry with calm.  Unlike Moses and other prophets in the Old Testament, he did not get rattled.  He interviewed Nicodemus and calmly answered his questions.  He did the same with the woman of Samaria.  Ultimately, Jesus faced his own death with calm and equanimity.

Jesus approached the world with curiosity, which is fundamental to learning and an essential openness to the world that facilitates learning and gaining wisdom.  The precocious child Jesus was in the temple questioning the religious leaders and the experts of Torah.  He was curious about the things of his heavenly Father.

Jesus was the epitome of compassion, which is what he demonstrated to the thief on the cross who was crucified together with him.  While on the cross, he shows compassion to his beloved mother when he commended her to John’s care.  He especially showed compassion as a better Moses in John chapter 8 when he refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery.  In the Old Testament, the law was written in stone by the finger of God demonstrating its unyielding inflexibility.  In obvious contrast, Jesus writes his new covenant, the Gospel, in the sand of the ground.

As a mindful person, Jesus was confident.  Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus demonstrates confidence in his Father to give him what he needs in any given moment.  He was satisfied and could live confidently in every moment.

As the true light coming into the world, Jesus taught and acted with clarity.  People were amazed that he did not teach like other religious experts.  He had clarity of thought and motives.  He demonstrated clarity when he spoke about the relationship between sin, illness and misfortune.  Life’s setbacks can be occasions to experience the glory of God.

Jesus was courageous.  He never wavered from the consequences of where his commitment to his Father would take him.  Inevitably, his teaching of God as loving Spirit would ram him into conflict with the status quo.

Jesus’ teaching demonstrated his creativity.  He taught with parables; he used art to illustrate and communicate spiritual truths that would have otherwise been lost in linear, univocal language.

Jesus had connectedness to his Father and to others.  His teaching on the Trinity reveals God as an essential connectivity of the three persons to each other and to the world.  Jesus could speak profoundly of such a spiritual truth and, yet, in a down-to-earth manner enjoy the presence of people in whatever occasion brought them together.

Jesus had a center to which he was connected.  His centeredness was informed by his relationship with his Father.  He was fully grounded in his God and Father.

Being so centered, Jesus had the capacity for choice.  Having a centeredness through Self actually frees one up to choose without the flailing of the arms in high anxiety.

Finally, Jesus sought communion. He gathered around himself 12 men to mentor and with whom to have a constant communion.  He had other connections with people that afforded him profound communion, namely Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

In the Gospel of John, Christians are invited to come into communion with the Mindful Christ.  There are no standard practices leading to an increase of mindfulness and focus in life.  The assumption is that together with the Mindful Christ and his Holy Spirit, you will develop practices that would enhance mindfulness in your life, so that over time you will reflect the Spiritual C’s.  At the center of all such practices is the incarnation. God becoming human means that this world matters; your body is important.

Everything that supports your body is a gift from God.  All the extensions and connections of the body prove that you live in an interdependent world, at the center of which is God.  To be mindful means to be aware of yourself in your body, in the space and time in which you find yourself.

". . .together with the Mindful Christ and his Holy Spirit, you will develop practices that would enhance mindfulness in your life…" Photo credit:

“. . .together with the Mindful Christ and his Holy Spirit, you will develop practices that would enhance mindfulness in your life…”
Photo credit:

I believe that contemplation is most necessary for the development of mindfulness.  Mindfulness is one of the fruits of contemplation.  Over time, a regular practice and discipline in contemplation make you adept at ignoring thoughts and not running off on mental and emotional wild goose chases.  Granted, given the way that our brains are wired to produce thoughts, we cannot ever stop them. But, we can ignore them, making them as objective to us as the noise of the street traffic in the background as you read this.  We need to objectify our thoughts so that we do not identify with them.  This is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 10 when he encourages us to take every thought captive. Your true self in Christ has power over all such thoughts.  A disciplined approach to contemplation empowers you to discipline your mind.  You do not let it drift and split in a multitude of directions.  Anxiety comes on the heels of such splitting and cascading to worst-case scenarios.

Through contemplation you become adept at bringing your mind back from the far country of anxiety and grounding it in the moment in which you are living, to let thoughts and feelings flow through you, not clinging to or resisting thoughts or emotions. The fruit of contemplation is a more mindful life, more focused and engaged. Contemplation can so discipline your mind that when you are ready to deal with a thought or an emotion, you do so at your choosing, on your terms; you do it thoroughly so that you can be done with it.

Too often we are “in our heads.”  Being in our heads, life rolls by unnoticed.  It is a most liberating feeling to achieve the awareness that you are not your thoughts.  The Gospel of John invites us to become one with the Mindful Christ, to be born from above through water and Spirit.  Living with the Mindful Christ opens up possibilities to live the way that he lived, to live the abundant life of the Spirit.

There is no reason to carry heavy emotional baggage through life. That abundant life looks like the Spiritual C’s of Internal Family Systems.

The final denouement of the film Gravity finds Dr. Ryan aboard a space capsule she boards at Chinese Space Station.  Her return to the earth’s atmosphere is risky.  Her life is hanging precariously in the balance.  Dr. Ryan’s re-entry plunges her into a vast lake with a shoreline nearby.  She emerges from the space capsule, swims to the shore and crawls onto the ground in elation.  Now the ground and  gravity have become holy things for her.  She beholds the mud in her hands; she kisses it.

"Her return to the earth’s atmosphere was risky."  Photo courtesy of

“Her return to the earth’s atmosphere was risky.”
Photo courtesy of

She has gained a new appreciation for the mud even though it cannot compare to the beauty she had seen in space. Unlike Commander Kowalski and before her experience, she could never have seen and beheld the beauty of space.  Eventhough she was one of the few privileged to gaze upon such beauty, she was not mindful; she was not a contemplative; she could not see it.  She was focused more on how her knowledge could exploit the cosmos.  After her figurative death and transfiguration, she would no longer ignore life and the grace that each moment brings.  The barriers removed, she could now be mindful.

Why does it take a crisis to wake us to a mindful existence?  Often, God wakes us spiritually through a great love or a great tragedy.  The Mindful Christ is both a great tragedy and a great love.  He teaches us how to die as he accepts his imminent death with equanimity.  He especially teaches us how to live, being open to what God the Father gives us in every moment as a gift at which to wonder.

Living with the Mindful Christ, we become mindful in life and death, more aware of every moment as a gift of grace and an occasion to experience peace, love and joy.

Resource:  Internal Family Systems:  The Center for Self-Leadership:

B.C. or A.D.?

My sermon for Sunday, December 29, 2013

Based on Matthew 2:13-23

The Escape to Egypt: 

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

 The Return to Nazareth:

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Yeah, why indeed…
In the Gospel reading, we see what it is that God really cries about. He cries about the slaughter of innocent boys in Herod’s attempt to track down the Christ Child.  By extension, God cries for all the innocent victims of this dark world.  God cries for the innocent child shot to death in a drive-by shooting.  God cries for the innocent victims of political repression.  God cries for the people gunned down in the religious wars.

Is it enough to know that God cries for the innocents of violence in the world?  How can we square the all-powerful God with the crying God?  The power of God means that God is big enough to take in the world’s pain, onto himself, and be moved to do something about it.

"In the Gospel reading, we see what it is that Jesus really cries about." Photo courtesy of

“In the Gospel reading, we see what it is that Jesus really cries about.”
Photo courtesy of

The pain that God felt over sin in the world is what led God to become a man in Christ Jesus, to live among us, to die among us, in order to heal and forgive us, to break down the dividing wall, so that God can be one with us.  This is what we celebrate every Christmas and indeed everyday through an act of repentance. Repentance is Christmas, for it enables us to experience the birth of Christ in our hearts at any moment.

As renewed children of God, we have to live in a world dictated by the mighty and powerful like Herod until such time that God decides to end it.  The joy and beauty of Christmas devolves to this ugly story of Herod’s killing of the innocent boys in his pursuit of Jesus, his perceived competition.  It is not beyond the pale to see Herod killing young babies in Bethlehem.  He killed his own sons because of suspicion over their political alliances with their Hasmonean relatives.  He killed his Hasmonean wife.  He was religiously repressive. From the perspective of the pious, he did horrible things that offended the practice of their faith.  They knew that he came to power because of Roman money and power.  He was a usurper.  He was not Jewish.  He was a pretender on the Jewish throne; his presence there was assured by the Romans.

There is something in us that when we harken back to the past, we tend to idealize it.  We forget the painful experiences; they get softened.  Lest we forget how ugly these times were, Matthew relates to the church this story of the slaughter of the innocents.  Jesus was born into a dark and ugly world.  This is the stuff that God cries about.

In light of real suffering and pain in the world, debates over whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” fade into the background of a rich society that has the luxury to navel gaze.  We should not allow ourselves to get sucked into such minutiae.  When we are pulled into that debate, let us think of the Christians who are being slaughtered in the Sudan.  Let us think of the Christians who are persecuted for their faith because of the present-day Herods.  We should not expend energy over such debates when there are souls that are shrouded in darkness and in need of the liberating Gospel with which we have been entrusted.

The Gospel belongs to those sitting in darkness.  On those sitting darkness, a light has shined in Christ Jesus.

Let us not forget that Christmas was not generally celebrated in America before the 19th century.  The colonies founded by the Puritans and Quakers banned the celebration of Christmas altogether.  The New England states and Pennsylvania had no Christmas holiday because of Catholic bias.  In America in the 18th century, the South was the only place where Christmas was observed.  Christmas did not become universally celebrated until after the Civil War.  Before that it took mass immigration on the part of the Germans and Irish to change the perception in America about the celebration of Christmas.  It was seen as a fun thing to do; so, Protestant America became more open to the celebration of Christmas.  I say all that to say that the celebration of Christmas in America has always been an ambivalent thing and a source of constant and needless debate.  There is no golden past to which to return where everything relative to Christmas was done right.

"...we should not let Christmas overshadow the continuing presence of our Lord, the epiphany of our Lord. " Photo courtesy of

“…we should not let Christmas overshadow the continuing presence of our Lord, the epiphany of our Lord. “
Photo courtesy of

Even in ancient history, Christmas did not become universally celebrated until the 5th century.  The church focused on the Epiphany of our Lord, the continuing presence of our Lord in his Word and Sacrament to heal and forgive, to give light to those sitting in this dark world.  It is indeed proper to celebrate Christmas.  But, we should not let Christmas overshadow the continuing presence of our Lord, the epiphany of our Lord.  In fact, in the Church Year, Easter is the preeminent festival.  Yet, Easter, Pentecost and Christmas need each other to round out for us the history of our Lord.  We have put so much emphasis on Christmas that Pentecost has gotten short shrift.

This morning’s gospel lifts the veil and causes us to face reality: the reality that we live in a world where the innocents get slaughtered and where evil seems to prosper.

“Things are not always what they seem.”  God controls the world.  God is on the throne and it is still God’s universe. Martin Luther King said it best at the height of the Civil Rights Movement: the universe is a moral arch that bends toward justice.  That seems imperceptible to us.  Yet, as we look back over time, God’s way of justice always wins out.   There is no church founded on Herod.  The church roams freely in the city of the Caesars where Christians were fed to the lions.  Every Good Friday, the Coliseum, where Christians were summarily killed, is a place of prayer and meditation on the passion and death of our Lord.  Herod and the Caesars’ way of violence has proven to beget more violence and we see the clear evidence of that.  Jesus’ way of nonviolence and love continue to be the force that lifts oppressed peoples to change their destiny.

Truth be told, we do not know when Jesus came into the world through the Virgin Mary.  The designation for time B.C. and A.D. imply that he was born in year one.  Most think that year one of our era was the year in which Jesus was born.  And, everything that happened before year one is designated B.C., “Before Christ.”  Everything that occurred subsequent to year one is designated A.D., the abbreviation for the Latin phrase Anno Domini, “In the Year of the Lord.”  Jesus could not have been born in year one, because Herod died in 4 B.C.  He died a horrible death.  He desperately sought healing at the healing springs of Callirhoe in the Judean desert.  He did not find healing like Naaman in Elisha’s day.  That means Jesus had to have been born before the death of Herod in 4 B.C.  That would put the birth of Jesus between 6 and 4 B.C.

B.C. or A.D.?  It does not make a difference when the Son of God took on flesh and lived among us.  The reality is that he came and did so.  He was born into this dark world through the Virgin Mary.  He lived, died, and was raised among us.  He is seated at the right hand of God the Father.  Jesus in on the throne and the universe is bending in his direction, that God may all in all.  He fills all time and space, so that those who

" He was born into this dark world through the Virgin Mary.  He lived, died, and was raised among us." Photo courtesy of

” He was born into this dark world through the Virgin Mary. He lived, died, and was raised among us.”
Photo courtesy of

believe in him might have eternal life: from righteous Enoch, Abraham and Moses to you and me.  It is indeed right and salutary to set aside a day to celebrate his birth.  Christmas is most appropriate.  Some say that the celebration of Christmas at this time is pagan.  Indeed the Romans celebrated Saturnalia during this time of the year.  For those who worship the sun, this is a meaningful time of the year.  Just as the Coliseum is a place of prayer, so Christ has taken over other aspects of the culture and now determines it, filling it with new meaning.  Jesus is Lord!  The poor one from Nazareth has outlasted the riches of Herod and the Caesars.  God has always worked this way.  He chose a nobody people with whom to establish covenant  and use their historical experiences as the setting for the birth of the Christ Child.  God did not choose the Egyptians through whom to reveal himself. There were other nations that were far in advance of the lowly, Hebrew slaves.  Yet, God chose them because they were nothing.

God chose a fumbling Jacob to be the Father of Israel.  Esau was a better choice according to the ways of the world.  Esau was strong and virile.  Esau was Isaac’s choice.  But, he was not God’s choice.  “Things are not always what they seem to be.”  Finally, God chose a simple, Jewish girl of 12 to 16 years old.  She was a nobody.  Yet, ever since her act of faithfulness, all nations have called her blessed.  It is appropriate to pray in the Coliseum where Christians were martyred, because they were proven right: Jesus is Lord!  It is right and appropriate to worship atop Vatican hill, where Nero had his circuses and killed thousands of Christians for sport, including Peter and Paul.  Jesus has outpaced Nero’s evil.  Nero meant his persecution for evil.  God turned it into the good.  By the same token, it is good and appropriate to celebrate the birth of our Lord at this time of the year because the book of Revelation has been proven right: “Jesus is Lord!”  Jesus is Lord, not Herod, not Augustus Caesar, but Jesus, born of Nazareth.  What good can come from Nazareth?  “Things are not what they always seem.”

B.C. or A.D., Jesus is Lord and in him even the innocents will find justice in his kingdom.  In his kingdom the tears of those who mourn will be wiped away.  In his kingdom the hungry will be fed and the thirsty will be satisfied.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Camelot: America’s Tragedy, My Personal Pain and Grief

I internalized the tragedy of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It happened when I was a young boy, and it became iconic for the fears I had to face in order to mature.

Camelot, the capital of King Arthur’s kingdom, was a place, where, according to the Arthurian legend, truth, goodness and beauty reigned. For Americans in the post-WWII era, their country had become a quasi Camelot—especially personified in the Kennedy family. John F. Kennedy had it all. He was a celebrated WWII hero, married to a beautiful woman, rich, charismatic with powerful family ties. He was America’s icon for prosperity and the American Way.

"He was America’s icon for prosperity and the American Way." Photo courtesy of:

“He was America’s icon for prosperity and the American Way.”
Photo courtesy of:

With an assassin’s bullet, America’s Camelot-like innocence was gone. America’s psyche was damaged at its core.

It was everybody’s pain; it was mine as well. That pain took on a debilitating significance. As a young boy, it filled my psyche with images that my immaturity could not possibly filter; thus, I was burdened with them for many years. They haunted me and repeatedly triggered in me a generalized anxiety that caused me to be irrationally afraid of the dark. The dark brought forth these macabre images: Kennedy’s

Kennedy’s body slumping forward in the presidential limousine Photo courtesy of:

“Kennedy’s body slumping forward in the presidential limousine”
Photo courtesy of:

body slumping forward in the presidential limousine; Jacqueline keeping vigil before his flag-draped coffin; Oswald’s bruised face with its arrogantly indifferent eyes; and Oswald being gunned down by Jack Ruby in the Dallas police headquarters.

Manifesting in the dark, those images took on a life of their own by darting in and out of my psyche at will. As a six year-old, I was terrified. It’s understandable for a young boy to have these fears, but this condition followed me into young adulthood, where the images persisted with a life of their own, out of my control, lurking in the dark. Images of Kennedy’s assassination became iconic for a generalized fear and anxiety that I could not face.

Early in my life, I felt the calling to be a pastor. I entered seminary as a young man of 21 years of age. After two years of academics, I spent an intern year as a vicar at a congregation in St. Louis, Missouri. Typically in the Lutheran tradition, a vicar is an interning pastor who shadows a head pastor in an existing congregation. However, in my case, there was no head pastor. As a result, I was shouldered with the key responsibility of being the sole spiritual leader for my vicarage congregation. This was a responsibility beyond my experience; so, it triggered substantial anxiety.

My anxiety built and culminated in one memorable event: after a church council meeting one evening, I had to walk through the dark church to retrieve some literature. The other members of the council had already left. I was alone.

I knew I had to go into that dark church all by myself.

"I saw Oswald being gunned down." Photo courtesy of:

“I saw Oswald being gunned down.”
Photo courtesy of:

I went through the door that separated the sanctuary from the office, which put me in the chancel area of the church. It was pitch dark. As I proceeded, I kept my face down to counter my inherent fear of the darkness. And then as clear as a bell, those dreaded images manifested: I saw Kennedy slumped in the limousine; I saw his flag-draped coffin; I saw the evil eyes of Oswald; I saw Oswald being gunned down. I ran out of the church with my heart pounding in my throat. My fear and anxiety had won out.

I was stuck….

Grief is pain that is almost too intense to bear. It yanks the grieving person out of the dailyness of his or her life, forcing reflection on the past and future as seen in one moment in time. The human psyche is ill equipped to take on that degree of pain and so, a person becomes overwhelmed, overcome by sadness and hopelessness.

Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross defines the classic 5 stages of processing grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I had not worked through these stages because no one helped me as a 6-year-old boy to process the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination and its attendant grief.

"I saw his flag-draped coffin…" Photo courtesy of:

“I saw his flag-draped coffin…”
Photo courtesy of:

The unfinished business of grieving can cause us to become stuck. Kuebler-Ross has shown us the process of how to work through grief. The first reaction to pain is shock, which renders you numb. You are then vulnerable to being invaded by thoughts and feelings that you may not have the emotional wherewithal to process at the time. That was certainly my experience as a child at being shocked by the death of JFK. The reactions of the adults around me reinforced my fears and contributed to the damaging of my psyche with its resultant disturbing images.

Jesus says in the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5, “Blessed are those who mourn.” In the 50s and 60s, we weren’t taught how to mourn. I was taught that big boys don’t cry. The subtext of that message is that we hide from anything that causes us grief. We pretend the pain doesn’t exist. My method of dealing with my pain was denial. I did this all the way up to my young adulthood: I pretended as if those horrifying images did not exist. I felt that if I could hope strongly enough, they would go away.

Jesus teaches the polar opposite of the practice of denying pain and grief. Jesus invites us to face our grief, to go inside, to face our feelings and mourn with the hope that healing will come. Kuebler-Ross reinforces the teaching of Jesus.

To resolve my denial and get unstuck, I used contemplation.

In the quiet of contemplation I confronted my false self. I discovered that this false self was a matrix of hurt feelings, contradictions, grief, sin, and failure, which ironically led me to yearn all the more for my true self. The logic became unassailable: if I had such an ugly self that was false, reciprocally I had a true self that was just the opposite. This is what Christ revealed to me in contemplation, reminding me that I was heir to my true self in baptism.

…back to my story

Because of that horrible anxiety attack after the church council meeting, I was impelled to pay attention to my insides and the thoughts and images I had long ignored.

"There was a room just off the right side of the altar called the vestry." Photo courtesy of:

“There was a room just off the right side of the altar called the vestry.”
Photo courtesy of:

There was a room just off the right side of the altar called the vestry. It was a little-used room, and so had become cluttered with trash and storage. Needing a place for quiet, I cleaned out that room and readied it for a newfound place of solitude. I began by studying and praying there, then I began to learn about contemplation—all done in the daylight hours as dictated by the tyranny of my anxiety attack.

Slowly and steadily, through contemplation, I began to feel the change that was occurring in me. What proved to me that I was changing was a sermon I preached on a confirmation Sunday. After the service, just about everyone told me that I was manifesting a new confidence.

But, the ultimate sign of my transformation was that I could now walk through the church at night without seeing those dreaded images.

"Contemplation gave me permission and a safe haven to face my fears…" Photo courtesy of:

“Contemplation gave me permission and a safe haven to face my fears…”
Photo courtesy of:

Contemplation gave me permission and a safe haven to face my fears, to confront them and gain mastery and power over them. By permitting those images to appear in the safety of Christ, the quiet and the relaxation that the spiritual practice afforded my body, I gained courage to look those images in the eye, no longer denying their existence.

Contemplation healed me in a steady, imperceptible way. Like growth in a garden, contemplation yields imperceptible results on a daily basis; yet over time, it produces real change.

Contemplation teaches me that the joy of being human is molding one’s life, growing, and getting continually unstuck through resolving psychic blockages to the abundant life in Christ—that life is my true self.

Like most Americans, I’ve been watching news programs commemorating the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. I listened to the testimonies of those who were at the scene on that fateful day in Dallas. These eyewitnesses continue to tell their stories with tears still present after all this time. I was struck by the fact that this tragedy is still real to them, and by extension, it is still real to our nation. It makes me wonder if the nation as a whole ever went through the healthy grieving process for the loss of our young president. It seems we didn’t get the time because we jumped right into the urgent tragedy of the escalating war in Vietnam. Psychologists have noted that abusers are people who have been abused and have not effectively dealt with their trauma. Their trauma continues to fuel their rage and anger in further violence toward others.

Instead of turning from violence, America became even more violent: the assassination of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.

Jesus was right, “Blessed are those who mourn,” who work through their grief. They are the ones who become the peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

"Instead of turning from violence, America became even more violent: the assassination of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy." Photo courtesy of:

““Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
Photo courtesy of:

A Prayer Away

My sermon for Sunday, October 20, 2013

A woman sat on a park bench observing the people around her.  She felt the pain of a child who had fallen down off his bicycle.   She felt the tiredness of an old man who was slowly making his way home.  She felt the joy of the children playing together on the jungle gym.  She saw the happiness of a couple walking hand in hand.

"Some people glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting.  They never, however, gave her a thought." Photo courtesy of

“Some people glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting. They never, however, gave her a thought.”
Photo courtesy of

People glanced her way as they passed the bench on which she was sitting.  They never, however, gave her a thought.  No one noticed the unshed tears in her eyes as she sat there watching and feeling. “So much pain in the world.  So much happiness and so much loneliness,” she thought as she reflected to herself. 

As she continued to watch, the woman’s mind drifted to another place, another time.  It was a time when she was like the people that she observed—all wrapped up in their own misery and joy.  Sometimes she wished that she could return to those days, and yet.

Her attention lingered on the image of her face that was reflecting in the pond.  She hadn’t seen that face in a long time.  It was a face that reflected contentment, joy, peace and love.  Wiping away the remnants of tears, she stood up and headed toward the fallen child.  She helped him up.  She wiped his tears.  She smiled at the child.  She offered to help the old man home with his shopping. 

She thought, “No, I don’t want to return to the old daysthose were days when loneliness was unbearable.” Though she is still lonely for human company, she has love in her heart because comfort was just a prayer away.

Indeed comfort is always only a prayer away because the person to whom we pray is a God of comfort.  God’s love is what informs God’s work of comfort.  Being blessed with the comfort of God in Christ Jesus, we are empowered to look beyond our own pain and help others in theirs.  Therein is our comfort.

God has great pain when God looks over the good creation that God framed.  Sin damaged it.  Sin brought corruption.  Sin brought tragedy of one kind and another.  The ultimate tragedy that sin brought was death.  Might God have remained in pain, ignoring humanity’s pain on earth?  God could not do that; God’s heart is too big. It is in comforting others in Christ Jesus that God’s pain is comforted. There was great pain in the Father’s heart.  How could the Father cast humanity into oblivion? 

God had an undying love for humanity, proven poignantly when God created humanity from the dust of ground.  God took a handful of dirt and breathed into it God’s Spirit.  God gave God’s very self in the Spirit.  There is no demonstration of love greater than that.  Even Steven Spielberg could not dramatize a greater love than that of God breathing into mud-people God’s Spirit.  That is an undying love. A person who loves that way cannot remain content while others suffer.  Such a person will indeed reach out to comfort.  Such a person will reach out to comfort because that person feels deeply the other’s pain. 

Jesus so felt other people’s pain that he made it his own.  Whenever Jesus sighs deeply, he breathes in other people’s pain.  He makes it his own.  That drives him to heal, to love and to forgive.  Jesus cannot help but sympathize and empathize.  He cannot help but comfort, for that is what his Father does.  Like Father—like Son.

It would only follow that any words addressed to Jesus and his father will be taken seriously.  Any words generated from pain God will hear and address.

God not only hears words; God especially hears the heart that prays them.

God sees the heart that prays.  God communes with the heart that prays.

God strives with the heart that prays.

God lives with the heart that prays.

God accompanies you as you travel through the shadows of death, and the Light of Life is always with you.

God is always in you, by you, above and around you.

God is closer to you than you are to yourself.. 

"God sees the heart that prays.  God communes with the heart that prays." Photo courtesy of:

“God sees the heart that prays. God communes with the heart that prays.”
Photo courtesy of:

That is not just any God.  That is the Father of Jesus, who is a God of comfort in this vale of darkness and tears called life.

In the Old Testament, God was with Jacob in his moment of crisis.  Unfinished business was lurking at the door of Jacob’s heart.  No matter how hard he tried to forget how he had cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, he could not.  No matter how hard he tried to ignore all the pain that he brought to his family because of his selfishness, he could not.  He was severed from his family in a distant land far from his beloved mother and father.  You don’t appreciate your family until you have lost them.  With every waking moment, Jacob thought about his beloved home.  His ambition could not give him the joy that he got at home with his parents.  The memories caused his heart to ache.  Those memories never go away.  They remind you that experiences count, especially experiences that stretch your soul to such capacity that you can experience even more, the even-more of eternity. You will die with the memories of your life, your parents, your friends, and your children, for they make up who you are.

Jacob had to meet his brother Esau.  He fretted over that impending confrontation.  His mind had engaged in splitting—it went to the worse case scenario as he thought about meeting Esau.  He was told that Esau was on his way to meet him and he had amassed four hundred men in preparation for that confrontation.  Overly dramatic, Jacob’s mind knew no rest about what that impending meeting would entail.  He thought that he would die.  He thought that his children and wives would be cut up by the sword.

Jacob had every reason to be frightened.  He had every reason to be troubled in heart, mind and body.  After organizing his families and giving them instructions in how to meet his brother, he spent time alone with God.  He cried.  He expressed anxious thoughts of the ghoulish images he foresaw, the torture and death of his children and wives.

We’ve all been there: Jacob’s mind went to the worse case scenario. It is the frame of mind of which ulcers are made.  It is the frame of mind that causes the body to close up on itself.  The mind entertains the ultimate escape: relief in death.  Death seems better than continued living.  You have been there.  You know what that means.  If you do not know what that means personally, then you know people who have gone through such dark nights of the soul where death is preferable to life; death seems like a pleasant escape. 

Jacob is in such mental anguish that he wrestles with God.  After the battle, God changes his name.  No longer will be called Jacob, the one who deceives.  He will now be called Israel. The etymology of the name Israel is uncertain.  It has been the subject of scholarly debate for many years.  In its purest meaning, Israel means God conquers; God wins.  Jacob is given that name.  Why?  He had to learn that God conquers.  God will have God’s way. 

Jacob Wrestling With God, painting by artist Jack Baumgartner Photo courtesy of

Jacob Wrestling With God, painting by artist Jack Baumgartner
Photo courtesy of

Jacob’s deceiving ways have gotten him into so much trouble since the day that he reached out of his mother’s womb to try and overtake his brother Esau.  His lying and deceptions have brought nothing but grief.  By changing Jacob’s name, God is giving Jacob a new operating system.  No longer will he strive against men and God.  He will let God win; he will let God have the right of way.  

Jacob finally surrenders to God.  His prayer fundamentally changed how he was to act in the world.  He was to put away the insecurity that caused him to rely on his own devices to get what he wanted. 

Jacob will let God win and conquer.  He will learn to pray.

Prayer is letting God win.  It is surrendering.  In prayer, the troubling circumstances of life lead you to surrender, to put away your attempts at figuring things out.  You come to realize that you cannot figure things out.  You learn to surrender amid all the ambivalence that spawns insecurity and all the wrong ways we try to address our essential insecurity about what is always just around the corner.

We learn what Jacob learned: God is just a prayer away and God is always there. God desires to comfort. What is winning to God other than comforting you through love, for God lives with you; strives with you; in God you live, move and have your being. 

Prayer is a confession that God has a better way to face the “Esaus” of your life, especially the self-inflicted Esaus that come back to haunt you, causing your stomach to churn and keeping you up late at night in your own battle with yourself and God.  The only way to face all such Esaus is through surrender.

Paul encourages the young pastor Timothy to to remain fully engaged in the Word of God, the scriptures, for they can make him wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  What does it mean to be made wise for salvation? It means to live a life of wisdom that will usher forth in salvation.  God is not only concerned with saving our souls.  God is also concerned with how we live in this life.  Sacred scriptures, inspired as a gift of the Spirit, can lead us in such wisdom.  In the Bible you have the collective wisdom of the ages.  You have a record of people’s dealing with God.  You have God’s laws and strictures on how to live a godly life.  Everything in the Bible can build you up in wisdom and preserve you until God calls you out of this life. With such wisdom you become competent and you don’t have to rely on the kind of struggles that you see in Jacob.  Jacob was not wise.  He was smart and clever, but he was not wise.  His lack of wisdom got him into one trouble after another.

"Each of us has all of God." Photo courtesy of

“Each of us has all of God.”
Photo courtesy of

God does not want to be a mere rescuer.  Let us not make our lack of planning and unwise decisions constitute a crisis for God.  At the core of a wise life is a prayerful life, especially a prayerful life informed by the word of God.  The prayer that is most informed by the word of God is worship.  Worship is through and through the word of God: we sing the word in the hymns and liturgy; we hear the word in the readings; we hear the word in the sermon; we pray the word in the prayers; we eat the word in the Eucharist; and we finally apply the word to our bodies in the benediction as we go out into the world.

Each of us has all of God.  Each of us has all of God’s attention, because God is already moving and breathing as you traverse this life.  That’s an even greater motivation to take all your needs to God, to a God who is only a prayer away.

Some of you still labor under the misconception that God does not care a whit about you. If that is your idea of God, then you have to change it.  It is wrong.

God became a man in Christ Jesus to die for your sins and to be the true Israel, the one who conquers, the one who wins, Cristus Victor over sin, death and the devil.  In him you have eternal life.  In him you have the Holy Spirit who preserves you in wisdom until the end of your life.

This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way.

This is the God to whom you pray, for this God is only a prayer away.  Forgiveness is a prayer away.  Joy is a prayer away.  Love is a prayer away.  Comfort is only a prayer away.

"This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way." Photo courtesy of

“This is a God who is most concerned about you, in a deep and personal way.”
Photo courtesy of