Where Spirituality and Illness Meet: The Middle Ground – Rev. George Rossi*

Some people need to become more human.  Some people need to become more spiritual.

Wholeness is found in the middle ground.  It’s the place where the coastal sea water from the Atlantic Ocean meets the black soil of the South Carolina coast.  It’s a rich and fertile place where marsh grass thrives, shrimp populate the grassy reeds, and redfish troll the high tides for dinner. The meeting and convergence of water and land is much like the meeting of the physical and the spiritual.  It’s the place where one has to merge with the other and something magical and something important becomes reality.

As a minister my growing edge is on the “becoming more human” side of the equation.  Just recently I read an excellent tweet from Twitter that was trying to “normalize” (eliminate shame) the fact that humans become physically ill, experience terrible disease processes, and eventually face difficult medical challenges.  For some that happens very early in life as a neonatal baby, and for others in their 20’s, and the much more fortunate, those in their the 50’s and 60’s when one has to carry more daily medications in his or her briefcase just to take care of themselves one more day.  Here’s the point of the tweet I mention and my point now:  Having illness is “normal” because it is reality and we have to find ways to talk about it more and to recognize our humanness, our fragile bodies that depend on equilibrium and homeostasis.  Yet, sometimes we are anything from feeling even-keeled or living in a good equilibrium.  A recent prescribed dose of antibiotics confirmed my disequilibrium as my stomach rumbled and tried to cope with the antibiotics.

Honoring our imperfect bodies is a way to honor our deep connection with God.  It means looking to God for grace so that one can “gracefully age.”  Sometimes prayers and reading and reflection can help one “accept one’s humanity which does eventually include illness.”

I encourage you and me to find fellow strugglers who are able and want to live in the middle.  In my case, the goal is to accept my humanity, find true physical and spiritual wellness, and to live a balanced life.  Illness can send that balance out of orbit with one abnormal lab result for sure.    I think we need more ministers, more medical professionals, more people who can help others and themselves to “normalize” the experience of illness and give people space and time to make sense of it.  I venture that healing will happen as people balance medical challenges with an alive faith and in that find health and meaning and purpose for living.

GeorgeM Rossi* at 1:28 AM George is a counselor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Present Perfect – The Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe*, UCC

Plymouth Church UCC, Shaker Heights, OH

Luke 1:46b-55

3rd Sunday of Advent – Year A

December 11, 2016

Our scripture reading today drops us into the middle of an intimate encounter between two extraordinary women: There is the elderly, once-barren Elizabeth and her newly expectant young cousin Mary. As Luke tells it, God is at work through the lives of both women and their words express nothing but joy.

Our reading begins in the middle of the conversation. Elizabeth, touched by the Holy Spirit, has already cried out in delight, offering words of praise: “Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the fruit of thy womb!”

Mary responds in the form of a song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” You may recognize this as the opening words of the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise. Her beautiful words are surprising yet familiar, for though her pregnancy is without precedent, her words place her in a long tradition.

As Mary sings the Magnificat, we hear echoes of the songs of other faithful women, like Miriam and Deborah and Hannah. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible notes that this is a sign of how “deeply imbedded is Mary’s story in the traditions of her people.” (The Living Pulpit, vol. 10, No. 4, October-December 2001, page. 8).

Mary goes on to tell of all the great and glorious things God has done. He has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

It’s a beautiful passage from scripture, but what catches my attention is the tense: Mary is singing in the present tense. She’s not praising God for what God will do, but proclaiming what God has done.

The prophetic tradition is mostly concerned with the future, what God will do and what shall happen. Consider the words of Isaiah, chapter 35: “The wilderness and the dry land SHALL be glad, the desert SHALL rejoice and blossom.” Or turn to the Revelation of John, chapter 21: “He WILL wipe every tear from their eyes. Death WILL be no more.” (21:4a)

But not Mary: Mary is singing in the present tense. Actually, if you know your English grammar, she’s singing in the present perfect.

Why would Mary sing about the present? Her song and its vision of a just and peaceful world seem to have no basis in reality. Consider the facts: She was an insignificant girl from a family of no repute. She lived in a dusty village carved out of the hills in Galilee. She was PWP–pregnant without permission–and because of that, her future was, at best, uncertain. More than that, her people were oppressed, living under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Anyone hearing her song could see for themselves: The proud were not scattered, the hungry were not fed, and the powerful sat comfortably upon their thrones, some might say much as they do today. It makes no sense: Mary’s song is disconnected from reality.

Or is it?

In 1955, British philosopher J.L. Austin published a book entitled How to Do Things With Words. In this volume, he laid out his theory that words do not just assert things, but can actually do things. Austin used the example of a wedding ceremony in which a person says, “I do,” and the words generate a new reality. He called such words “performative utterances.” To say it is to do it. Austin concluded that some words had generative power.

Anyone who has done strategic planning knows that this is true. Recently, I was part of a strategic planning process for a local non-profit. We wanted to chart a new course for the future of the organization, and we hired a facilitator to guide us through the process of strategic planning. Our main task was to create a vision statement–not to be mistaken for a mission statement. The vision statement needed to be clear and compelling and could include two or three long-term goals that were almost out of reach. Most importantly, our facilitator said, the vision statement needs to be written in the present tense.

I asked what she meant by that. “Don’t tell me what you will be, tell me what you are.” To me, it seemed disingenuous to write a vision statement in the present tense. After all, if we had actually accomplished our goals, we wouldn’t need a vision statement. Why would we express our hopes in the present tense? It turns out there is conclusive research that proves organizations that express their goals in the present tense are more likely to achieve those goals. The right vision statement can create a sense of unity, purpose and excitement in an organization.

What works in organizations also works for individuals. Since the 1960s, Olympic athletes have been using visualization and imagery as part of the training regime. One sports psychologist said, “The more completely an athlete can imagine competing successfully, the better the outcome.” Visualization helps people anticipate and overcome obstacles, as well as lessen distractions. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that training the mind is more important to athletic performance than training the body. As the saying goes, “If you can conceive it, you can believe it, and you can achieve it.”

Visualization techniques and vision statements inspire because they paint a vivid picture of a hoped-for reality. Not only can you see the future, you can practically live in it–and if you can live IN it, you can live INTO it. For that is the real power of a compelling vision: it can instruct.

By establishing a new reality, one that diverges from, or even competes with, the present reality, a clear vision enables us to discern what actions, what ideas and what attitudes are in line with that reality and bring us closer to achieving our goals.

That’s why there is power in the present perfect tense.

We see this most vividly in the clear and compelling mission statement Black Lives Matter. Like Mary’s Magnificat, this slogan describes a reality for which there is little evidence. Whether you consider the gap in student achievement, the disparity of family income, the lack of access to healthcare, or the tragic outcomes of police encounters, it seems clear that in the United States, Black Lives Don’t Matter. But that is not the way it should be. That is not the way it will be, thus sayeth the Lord.

Think of this slogan NOT as a protest, but as a vision statement like the Magnificat, a hoped-for reality. Black lives matter, so we have to address the chronic, crippling poverty that is the unwelcomed inheritance from centuries of oppression. Black lives matter, so we must raise our expectations for those who have the authority to use deadly force. Black lives matter, so even the smallest vestige of implicit racism must be addressed.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not asking a question or hoping for a better day: They are charting a new course into the future for this country, a future where the color of one’s skin does not determine one’s prospects for prosperity and happiness.

Some people may find this vision statement controversial or even threatening, just as some people surely took offense at the Magnificat. Let’s face it: It’s not really good news for the rich, the proud or the powerful.

But the Magnificat is a clear and compelling vision of God’s intentions for all creation. It offers inspiration and instruction so that anyone–high born or low brow–can participate in this magnificent future. We may not see evidence yet of Mary’s vision of the world, but these words she’s singing have the power to generate a new reality.

All we need is for enough people to join in the singing. Let us sing the Magnificat together. Let us believe that the world will be made whole. If we can believe it, we can achieve it, for this is the present perfected. Amen.

*The Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe is senior minister of Plymouth Church United Church of Christ in Shaker Heights, OH. I am grateful to the Rev. Dr. Monroe for giving me permission to re-post this sermon.

 

Repent and Reset* – The Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe*, UCC – Plymouth Church UCC, Shaker Heights, OH

Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 11:1-10

2nd Sunday of Advent – Year A – December 04, 2016

This may only be the second Sunday of Advent, but I am already over Christmas. Like everyone else, I get caught up in the spirit of the “holiday” season–the shopping, the baking, the decorating, the parties–while simultaneously trying to hold a quiet space for the season of Advent. Honestly, it feels like a losing battle: even in church, there are people itching to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and it is only December 4th.

It is a stressful time of year for many people. According to the National Institutes of Health, Christmas is a time of year when people report a higher incidence of depression and anxiety. The underlying causes of this uptick in sadness include less sunlight, unrealistic expectations, financial pressure, and excessive commercialization. The report also said many people felt increased pressure to be perfect during the holiday season.

So right when we’re all starting to feel overwhelmed by this impending holiday, who should show up but John the Baptist. This is where we always find him, this Second Sunday of Advent, waist deep in the muddy Jordan, dressed in nothing but skins and a belt, ranting like a street preacher: Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!

He turns up every year at this time, like a relative we’ve been avoiding. You know the one–that person you have to invite to the family Christmas party even though no one really wants to see him and he’ll probably bring a fruitcake…again.

If, like me, you are feeling a little stressed out, it is tempting to try and slip past John unnoticed. But that’s impossible. No matter which lectionary year it is, the second Sunday of Advent serves up John.

The four Gospels offer a wonderful variety of narratives, but sometimes it feels like they’re not telling the same story, especially at this time of year. Luke gives us shepherds; Matthew brings the magi; but Mark and John come empty handed to our Christmas party. The first thing they all agree on is John the Baptist. In all four Gospels John is in the same place wearing the same clothes with the same message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven draws near! Prepare the way of the Lord. It doesn’t matter which Gospel you read; if you want to get to Jesus, you must pass by John. Why is that?

John the Baptist is significant because he is the last in the life of prophets. Although he does not call himself one, John is the embodiment of the whole tradition. He is dressed like Elijah, he sounds like Isaiah, and he is standing in the water that marked the boundary between the wilderness and the Promised Land. In this way John provides a kind of continuity; he is the bridge with the prophetic tradition. And that’s important, because Jesus is not a “one off,” some foreign body sitting next to an old tradition. No, John has come to tell the world that Jesus is the branch that grows from the root of Jesse. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

There’s another reason that John the Baptist is significant. Listen to those words again: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. John may look like the prophets of old, but there is something new about his message.

Much of the prophetic tradition is instrumental in its approach. It’s almost an equation of sorts. If we sin, then God will punish us. If we repent, then God will forgive. From Isaiah to Ezekiel to Joel, there is an on-going theme of “Shape up…or else.” The variable that determines the outcome of this holy equation is the behavior of humanity–the faithfulness, or faithlessness, of Israel and Judah–but that is not John’s message.

John doesn’t say, “Repent OR the kingdom of heaven will come near.” That would be in line with the prophetic tradition, which often portrayed the coming of God as a day of tribulation and judgment. The prophet Isaiah says, “Behold, the Day of the Lord comes, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger!” (13:9), The prophet Joel is more descriptive: “The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.” One might assume that the kingdom of heaven coming near was something to be feared, not welcomed –IF John was using it as a threat. But that is not what he’s saying.

Nor does John use the kingdom of heaven as a reward. He does not say, “Repent AND the kingdom of heaven will come near.” That would be in line with a more merit-based approach to faith, which sounds a lot like the prosperity Gospel. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: If humans have faith in God, God will reward us with security and prosperity. It also sounds a little bit like Santa: “You better watch out. You better not cry!” But that’s not what John is saying either.

No, what John the Baptist has come to tell us is that we are no longer the key variable in this equation. What is happening in Jesus Christ is God’s doing. The kingdom of heaven has come near. John is proclaiming a new reality. We can choose to be part of it, but ready or not, here it comes. It is time to repent.

We don’t use the word repent much outside of the church. Most people think it means to be sorry. But that’s not really it. In the Greek, the word literally means to change one’s mind. Biblical scholars describe it more broadly as reorienting, reordering, or re-centering. Or maybe it is like resetting. I love to cook, even when it’s not the holiday season, and one of the most important pieces of equipment in my kitchen is a digital scale. It can accurately weigh ingredients to a fourth of an ounce, allowing me to prepare delicate cakes or delicious curries. But every now and then, something goes wrong: My scale stops measuring things accurately, and the values are way off. When that happens, I have to zero it out; I have to reset it. Then it functions as it should.

The writer Anne Lamott once said that most things can be fixed if we just turn them off for a while and back on, including ourselves. Maybe we are all like my kitchen scale: When our values are off, we need to be reset…reordered, reoriented. That is the essence of John the Baptist’s message: We need to reorder our lives, reset our priorities, and return to God…for the kingdom of heaven is here…and we don’t want to miss it.

This message is good news for those who struggle at this time of year. It is good news for anyone who has tried to meet the expectations and requirements of the season or of society and fallen short. So many people–then and now–are caught in the old equation, the game of “if, then”…and losing. We will never be good enough or kind enough or faithful enough. In a world where it feels like the rules are rigged, John’s message brings hope. A new day has dawned, and it is a light that shines on all people. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

This is the balm that heals our holiday blues better than any batch of cookies or office party; this is the peace that quiets our anxiety. This is the best way to prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel…God with us. So don’t avoid John the Baptist. Yes, he’s in the same place saying the same things once again, but he has brought a marvelous gift, an opportunity to reset and repent, for Jesus Christ is here! Amen.

*The Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe is senior minister of Plymouth Church United Church of Christ in Shaker Heights, OH. This sermon is used with the permission of Dr. Monroe.

On Scripture: Prophetic Resistance – Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto*

Isaiah 2:1-5

November 21, 2016
Losing an election shouldn’t feel this dire.

Sometimes our preferred candidates win. We celebrate, but then life goes back to normal. Sometimes they lose. We protest. We demand a recount. But eventually we accept the loss. We lick our wounds and begin to think about the next election.

But this was not a normal election. None of what has been happening over the last few weeks is normal. No part of this campaign was as it should be. Not the misogyny. Not the fear of the immigrant and the refugee. Not the mocking of the disabled.

This is not to say that these things are new. They have always been with us. But we have embraced them, voted for them, voiced them in public in a way that seems irretrievable. We can’t put things back the way they were. None of this is as it should be.

Hatred is bubbling up among the cracks of division among us. Ideologies many of us had hoped were dormant in our body politic have returned with a roar. And we can’t be sure what comes next. For some of us, the fear we feel is not just uncertainty, but the realization that our bodies continue to be the object of so much vitriol and scapegoating.

More than anything, however, we have to realize that none of this is as it should be. None of this should be assumed to be typical. None of this is as it should be. We don’t have to accept the creeping and insidious forms of division that are cropping up among us. We don’t have to accept discourses that dehumanize victim and oppressor alike. We don’t have to buy the growing media narrative that we should reconcile our differences without protest and lament and resistance.

We don’t have to accept things as they are and might be. We know this in our bones. But we sometimes need a little bit of help. And here Isaiah steps in to help us voice what we sometimes have trouble describing and believing. We don’t have to accept such brokenness as inevitable. Instead, the prophets dreamed dreams, the prophets saw something beyond our everyday vision, the prophets imagined God’s reign.

In Isaiah 2:1-5, the prophet casts a vision of a world bending around the mountain of God. This mountain of God ascends over every hill, and the peoples of the world turn into streams of water flowing uphill to this highest of peaks. Many peoples will follow those streams to the mountain of God so that they can leave the mountain on a path God has set, a path of righteousness and justice, life and hope. But notice that this is not just a vision of abundant grace; there is also judgment here. Verse 4 notes that God will judge between the nations. That is, God will call injustice what it is; God will repair what we have done wrong. God will set the world right. God does not accept the world as we have inherited it and misshaped it.

And how will God do this? By taking implements of war and violence and transforming them into implements that can turn the soil, making it ready for the promise of new seed. God will take our death dealing artifacts and turn them into tools of agriculture. And the ways of war will be no more because there will be no need for violence nor even the weapons to wage it.

This vision might strike us as naive. Can we ever imagine a world without the implements of war? Can we ever imagine taking our nuclear arsenals and turning them into plowshares? Can we imagine melting the 300 million firearms in America into rakes and spades and shovels? Even the very thought of such vulnerability will send some of us rushing to build higher walls and accumulate even more armaments. Can we even imagine such a world? Can we imagine a world in which violence does not order our every step?

I can’t. Not these days. Not when so many of our neighbors have chosen this political path. Not when the cries of the most vulnerable are dismissed as overreactions. Not when political rhetoric so easily invites the spray-painting of swastikas, the distribution of pamphlets celebrating white supremacy, and so many other incidents we will never see on social media but have nonetheless shattered people and communities alike.

But the prophet still casts this vision all these years later. We will hear his words read in our churches. He will ask us to see what is beyond our seeing. The prophets don’t wish to anesthetize us, to dull our pain and concern with the siren call of a futile dream. No, the prophets wish to energize us with hope, drive us into a broken world with the admittedly fleeting image of the reign of God mirrored in our tears.

This Advent season feels so different than others in the past for many of us. Advent is a time of waiting and expectation and patience. It is a time for us to anticipate the birth of a baby who would turn the world upside down. It is a time for us to see the hopes of the world born in a vulnerable child. But that waiting feels that much more pregnant this time around, the threat over Jesus’ life that much more tangible. It seems that much more unbelievable that a mere baby could do anything to change the world as we see it.

This Advent, we wait once again. We wait to hear that story again, of a child born under the shadow of a mighty empire, of a child who would deliver us from death itself. We wait not just for Christmas morning. We wait for his birth again and again in our lives, for it is among the vulnerable and the scared and the afflicted where we will find the Christ child today.

I fear that we sometimes assume that prophets belong to a dusty past: bearded men writing obscure tales a long time ago. That gets the prophets all wrong. The prophets were people on the ground. The prophets spoke truth to the power. The prophets are not long gone for as long as God’s people have voice, we too can speak in much the same way as the prophets of old did. Their words don’t have to stay in the past. The prophet today is on the front line of a protest demanding justice. The prophet today steps between a bigot’s screams and an immigrant’s victimization. The prophet refuses to acquiesce when some insist that this is all business as usual.

Perhaps the most important role of the prophet is rousing us from our stupor. When we get tired, when we are weary of resisting, when we are told over and over again that this is how things are going to be, the prophet’s call is clear. God has something better for us. Something liberating. Something just. Something transformative.

So listen to the prophets! They have shown us the path. Those who have ears to hear and eyes to see: hear and see how hatred for the stranger is already becoming normalized in our midst. Fight it with all your might. Words easily become anger. Anger easily becomes prejudice. Prejudice easily becomes exclusion. Exclusion easily becomes violence. And violence easily becomes our own undoing. Those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

*The Rev. Dr. Eric Barreto is the Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ. This post was published on www.day1.com and is used with permission. Dr. Barreto is a frequent contributor to the On Scripture Project.

 

3 Ways to Help Your Kids Live a Life of Gratitude – Christina Embree

Thanksgiving is a time to pause, take a deep breath, count our blessings and express our gratitude.

We spend time with family, eat delicious food, kick off the Christmas holiday season, watch football and engage in any number of personal family traditions.

Perhaps this year, more than in others in recent memory, I am more cognizant of the need to give thanks. However, I think something we need to consider as we are leading the next generation of citizens, is that gratitude is not limited to a spoken “thank you” or a special day. Gratitude is a way of life – a continual living into an awareness of the blessings we have and the grace we are given each and every moment of the day.

Simply put, gratitude is a life of awe. It’s a place where we are very aware of the incredible life we are given, from the air we breathe to the food we eat. It’s more than an attitude or a platitude – it’s a state of being.

Often, our children miss out on awe. Their lives are fast-paced and hurried. They shuffle from one activity to the next, one distraction to the next, one practice to the next and that sense of awe and wonder gets lost in the noise. I fear that a constant lack of awe leads to a lack of gratitude and a growth of entitlement. When we aren’t aware of the greatness of our blessings, we assume that our blessings are our rights and we behave in ways that are more greedy than gracious, more demanding than grateful.

Here are three ways that we can help our kids learn to live a life of awe:

  1. We can stop.

For a moment, for a breath, we can stop. Stop the car. Stop the conversation. Stop the running. Stop for just a moment and look up, look out and look around.

My kids love to make fun of me because I will pull the car off on the side of the road to get a picture of the sky. They make fun of me, but they also look up a lot – at stars, at clouds, at sunrises and sunsets – and they are in awe of our Creator. And that leads to thanksgiving. So, let’s stop for a just a moment, when our kids are watching, and live into awe.

  1. We can go.

One thing that hinders gratitude is an introspective life that is focused inward on self.

A.W. Tozer once shared, “Gratitude is an offering precious in the sight of God, and it is one that the poorest of us can make and be not poorer but richer for having made it.”

Showing and offering gratitude leads us to look not to self, but to others. When we are aware of our blessings, we want to extend those blessings to those around us.

There is something amazingly precious about our children watching us serve others and joining us in that work. It leads to a distinct awareness of just how blessed we really are.

  1. We can speak.

My favorite hashtag on social media is #speaklife. It is used to share all manner of uplifting and powerful messages of life-giving hope. Gratitude isn’t just about saying, “thank you,” it’s about speaking life into situations where hopelessness and darkness encroach and try to steal, kill and destroy hearts and lives. It’s the antithesis of grumbling and complaining. Gratitude says there is hope, and if our children need to hear anything today, it’s that there is hope – unending, never-failing hope.

As we look around at the world around us and see the things that hurt our hearts and weigh heavy on our spirit, let’s cultivate a new approach within ourselves – an approach that stops, goes and speaks with heartfelt gratefulness and genuine thanksgiving, an approach that leads to a sense of awe and wonder. To do so is to follow the imperative found in Colossians 3:17. “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Christina Embree is wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and family minister at Nicholasville UMC. She is passionate about seeing churches partnering with families to encourage faith formation at home and equipping parents to disciple their kids in the faith. Currently studying Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at www.refocusministry.org and is a contributing blogger at D6 Family,  Seedbed, and ChildrensMinistryBlog.com Follow her on Twitter at EmbreeChristina. This first appeared on her website, www.refocusministry.org and is used with her permission.


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