Pastor Kaye's Blog

Food for the Soul

(Sermon 4 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.”)

Following John Shelby Spong’s premise in his book Biblical Literalism, that Matthew is a liturgical document corresponding to the liturgical year, we have traced the connections chronologically from Shavuot (Pentecost), to Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur over the last three weeks. The next major festival in the Jewish liturgical calendar is Sukkoth (also known as Booths or Tabernacles). It was an eight-day harvest festival beginning five days after Yom Kippur, and was the most anticipated and joyous festival of the Jewish year.

(For the full video version, click here.)


In addition to the harvest-oriented material in Matthew 13, we hear the echoes of the rituals and traditions of Sukkoth in our own Palm Sunday celebration. In Jesus’ time, Sukkoth began with a procession around Jerusalem and into the Temple. In their right hands Jews would carry a lulab – a bundle of leafy willow, palm and myrtle branches tied together. And in their left hand they would carry a box with sweet-smelling leaves and flowers and citron fruit zest. As they paraded around the town, they chanted Psalm 118 which included (what we think of as Palm Sunday phrases) “Hosanna! Save us, we beseech you! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The Hebrew scriptures also dictate that Jewish families build a temporary shelter next to, or close to, their house for the eight days of the festival. This booth is to remind them of their ancestors who were essentially homeless nomads following Moses for 40 years in the desert. At least one night of the festival a meal is to be served in the booth.

The harvest stories (the sower, the weeds and wheat, and the mustard seed) and Kingdom of Heaven vignettes (the Kingdom of heaven is like leavened bread, a treasure in a field and a pearl of great price) in Matthew 13 correlate to the days that Sukkoth was celebrated in the synagogue.

It seems that Matthew essentially transformed the harvest festival – a celebration of food for the body – into a celebration of food for the soul- that which celebrates our deepest hunger. The message of Jesus was so important it needed to be shared! The parable of the sower was about planting the message of Jesus in “good soil” so that it would bear fruit. And the parable of the mustard seed recognized the reality of how small they were as a movement, but foreseeing it growing into something huge.

Almost two thousand years later, that tiny mustard seed of a movement has clearly grown and thrived. So, let’s turn our attention to the treasure and the pearl of great price… the value of Jesus’ message. How often do any of us actually consider the value that Jesus’ teachings and life have for each of us?

I spent a few days in Phoenix this week with my brother, Gary, trying to help my dad work through some issues and begin thinking about the future. The night before we came home Gary and I sat in the hotel bar to debrief. At one point he looked at me and said, “I don’t like your God.” Really? What about my God is it that you don’t like? Because I probably don’t like it either. He thought for a moment and then said, “I don’t expect life to be easy, but your God doesn’t seem to be helping us any…”

It seems to me that people are confused about what the treasure of knowing God is. You see, the value of knowing God – not merely believing, but knowing – is to understand that God is not a magic genie, but a deep abiding presence that changes everything.

What Jesus taught and lived is that knowing God has nothing to do with following rules, or believing the right things. Knowing God doesn’t mean reading the Bible, going to church, and giving to charity. You can do all those things without truly knowing the Divine. Knowing God means discovering that the secret to life, fulfillment and wholeness is, and has always been, within us. Knowing God means experiencing the Oneness Jesus talked about – “I am in God and God is in me” – and that Oneness is experienced as unbounded love. Not believing in unbounded, unconditional love, but knowing it, being it, living it.

When we reach that place, we move beyond our fears and insecurities to a place of compassion, courage and justice. We move beyond our judgments and grudges to inclusiveness and forgiveness. Our egos move aside and stop ruling our actions. This is a treasure beyond measure and a pearl beyond price. Why? Can you imagine what this world would look like if everyone could live in this place of pure unbounded love? There would be no war, no greed, no prejudice, no hunger, no poverty, no hatred, jealousy or pride. There would be no condemning or judging, envy or shame. To learn to live this way is priceless, because when we all meet in that place there is peace, there is care for all, and we find value in ourselves and in each other. That is “way”Jesus wanted us to find in our spiritual lives… KNOW God… then we don’t need rules or parables or belief structures.

Bishop John Shelby Spong has said, “Perhaps we need to confront the possibility that Christianity has not failed, as our critics constantly assert: the reality, I believe, is that Christianity has never been understood and thus has never really been tried.”



Unbounded Love

(Sermon 3 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.)

Two weeks ago we began our Lenten series which is examining the gospel of Matthew and it’s correlation and integration with the Jewish liturgical year in Jesus’ time. We have covered:

  • The Sermon on the Mount told in conjunction with Shavuot or Pentecost.
  • The miracle stories, and John the Baptist confirming that Jesus was the Messiah, told in conjunction with Rosh Hashanah

Now we move on to the next High Holiday in the Jewish liturgical calendar, Yom Kippur, which takes place merely 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. Those 10 days are considered the Days of Awe, or the Days of Repentance. TYom Kippurhis is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and make a commitment for the coming year to be better.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In the time of Jesus, the ceremony for Yom Kippur was much different than it is today. What many people don’t realize is that the rituals, symbols  and language of Yom Kippur have shaped much Christian language and much of our atonement theology.

In the time of Jesus, when the Temple still existed in Jerusalem, the Jews gathered for one long 24 hour day to meditate on their sinfulness in the knowledge that God was a forgiving God. This was not motivated by any concept of “original sin” but by the self-knowledge that we know we can be better human beings than we are. As Jews believed they were created in God’s perfect image, it was therefore their goal to try and attain that perfection with which they were created. A lamb and goat became the symbols of the human yearning to participate in the perfection of God.

On Yom Kippur a perfect lamb, without blemishes, scratches or bruises, was slaughtered. The Jewish high priest, after undergoing extensive cleansing rituals himself, took some of the blood into a place in the Temple called the Holy of Holies. This was the most sacred part of the Temple, the home of the throne of God. Only the high priest was allowed in there, and only on Yom Kippur. The high priest would then smear blood on the “mercy seat” (aka God’s throne) so that through the blood of the perfect lamb the people now had, symbolically, a way to enter into the perfection of God.

Then a goat, a perfect one, was brought before the high priest. Spong explains, “He would grasp the goat by its horns and pray aloud confessing all the sins of the people. It was believed that as he prayed those sins were transferred onto the goat.” The goat was then driven out into the wilderness carrying away the sins of the people. Hence, the term “scapegoat.”

You can perhaps see how these rituals have manifested in Christian language and thought. However, that is not the intent of this message today.

To return to Matthew and its correlation with Yom Kippur, we turn to chapter 12, which Spong says, “presents us with a conflict between religious rules and human fulfillment, and it opens to us a new way to look at and to interpret human sinfulness.” The chapter begins with three stories of Jesus breaking the Sabbath rules. First, he breaks them by allowing the hungry disciples to “work” by gleaning grain in the fields on the Sabbath. Then he does more “work” and heals the withered hand of a man on the Sabbath. And, finally, Jesus heals a man who was blind and mute.

Spong suggests that the question Matthew is really addressing with these stories is: “Where does holiness lie?” Does it lie in always following the rules? Or does it lie in addressing human need with compassion? Do the rules of the Sabbath take precedence over our fellow human beings, their well-being and their wholeness? And, let’s talk about that last healing. At the time of Jesus, being blind and mute were considered punishment from Satan (Beelzebul) for sinfulness (either of that person’s life or their parent’s lives). Healing that man presumed a certain authority, and yet Jesus wasn’t a religious leader! He was lacking the credentials to do what he did… so who the heck was he anyway? Maybe Jesus was working for Satan?

Basically, Jesus responds to the challenges of the religious leader’s by essentially saying, “You idiots. How can you confuse something good with something bad? Why do you look on the work of the Spirit and call it the work of the Devil? Nothing can fix that in you. Your distorted way of seeing is too deep. You are living in total darkness and don’t even know it.” Specifically, Jesus says, ” [A]nyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven…”

In the context of Yom Kippur – a time of self-reflection on one’s sinfulness and mistakes, a time of repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness, and receiving it because God is merciful – the religious scholars were completely blind to the presence of God among them. Spong suggests that the unforgiveable sin is only such because one can’t be cleansed of a sin they don’t even acknowledge they have!

Just after this passage, the religious scholars and Pharisees demand to see a miraculous sign from Jesus. Have they been sleeping? Did we not just have all those signs a few chapters ago where the blind saw, the lame walked, the dumb spoke and the leper was cleansed? Jesus says, “You are an evil and unfaithful generation and the only sign you’re going to get is the sign of Jonah.” Where on earth did Jonah come from?

What we don’t know, as non-Jews, is that the book of Jonah has traditionally been read on Yom Kippur.  And the interesting parallel here is that Jonah didn’t believe in God’s compassionate, unbounded love for the Ninevites any more than the Jews believed that the miracles Jesus performed were done with the authority of the Spirit in an act of love and compassion. According to Spong, Jonah confused “his vision of what was holy with God’s vision of what is holy” as did the Jews who didn’t like Jesus breaking the Sabbath rules. Both Jonah and the religious scholars wanted to put boundaries on God’s love in accordance with their own boundaries.

Are there boundaries to God’s love and compassion?   No.

Are there boundaries called synagogue (church) rules that can actually dictate who is in God’s favor and who isn’t? No.

Are there boundaries called sin – present and past – that enable us to judge who God loves and doesn’t?  No.

God’s love is unbounded. Any limits placed on it are human limitations devised by egos too small to understand the expansiveness of the Divine.

Lenten blessings,


The Kingdom is Here

(Sermon 2 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.)

Last week we began our Lenten series looking at the gospel of Matthew and it’s correlation and integration with the Jewish liturgical year in Jesus’ time. We began by looking at the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost, and Matthew’s Sermon of the Mount.

Now we turn to the next major festival in the Jewish liturgical year, Rosh Hashanah, christ-ruler-of-all09usually referred to as the Jewish New Year. It was also the holy day to which Jews attached their hopes for the coming of a messiah. This increasingly became the focus of the festival, and since Matthew was writing after the fall of the temple in Jerusalem and during the Jewish-Roman war, certainly the Jews were in desperate need of someone to come and get them out of that mess.

(For the full video version, click here.)

The scripture from the writings of the prophets that was typically associated with this day was Isaiah 34-35 which talks about the signs that would accompany the arrival of the messianic kingdom, and then expounds on what that kingdom would look like once it arrived:

Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
the ears of the deaf will be unsealed.
Then those who cannot walk will leap like the deer
and the tongues of those who cannot speak
will sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6)

Spong believes that Matthew 11: 3-15 clearly correlates with this Rosh Hashanah reading.  In beginning of the 11th chapter of Matthew we learn that John the Baptist is in prison. He sends a messenger to Jesus asking, “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?” And, Jesus (never one to give a straight answer) sends a message in return: tell John what you see and hear, “Those who are blind recover their sight; those who cannot walk are able to walk; those with leprosy are cured; those who are deaf hear; the dead are raised to life; and the anawim – the “have-nots” – have the Good News preached to them.” Fascinating! Matthew obviously is making the case that the scripture is fulfilled and the Messiah has arrived.

But, just in case the Jews weren’t quite convinced, Matthew has Jesus make it absolutely clear that John wasn’t just a whack job who was thrown in prison. Jesus says, “…If you will believe me, [John] is Elijah who was to return. Let those who have ears to hear, hear this!” The prophet Malachi (4:5) prophesied that the great prophet Elijah would return at the end of times to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.

Here’s something even more interesting… if we back up a little bit to the last festival, Shavuot (the readings for which paralleled the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7), Matthew still had two to three months of Sabbaths in the Jewish liturgical year to cover before he arrived at Rosh Hashanah. These would be covered by Mt. 8, 9, 10 and part of 11. So, what do you suppose was in these texts? The stories of miracles that Jesus performed including (but not limited to) cleansing a leper (Mt. 8:1-4), healing a paralyzed person, (Mt. 9:1-8), giving sight to two blind men (Mt. 9:27-31), and helping someone who’d been unable to speak due to a “demon” (Mt. 9:32-34). The entire Sermon on the Mount was preaching the Good News to the poor.

So, basically, Matthew set the stage over the course of a couple of months, and 3 chapters in Matthew, for the coming messiah.

I’ve always struggled with preaching when these healing passages came around. Taken literally the message seems to be that if we just have enough faith, God will heal us. My bet is that we’ve all prayed for physical healing for ourselves, or for someone else, at some point and it didn’t happen. Did you have that moment of “I must not have enough faith”? I have… even though I know better. Or even worse are people who leave the church and give up on God because they prayed so hard for someone to live, to be physically healed or cured, and it didn’t happen. If God is supposed to be all loving and merciful, then why did God let so-and-so (who was such a good person) die? Or maybe sometimes it seemed that your prayer was answered and sometimes not, which can only lead us to believe we have a capricious God who does whatever they darn well choose and we’re told to chalk it up to “it’s a mystery.” I like a somewhat mysterious God, but that’s just a slap in the face.

Spong holds that the audience of Jews hearing these stories would not have even thought to take them literally because they heard them in the context of the festival and their Hebrew scripture readings. Plus, remember, Paul wrote NOTHING about Jesus performing miracles… certainly he would have used that to his advantage if he’d heard of that.

So, now if we consider these passages in a new light, in a more than literal way, and in conjunction with Rosh Hashanah and the anticipation of a messiah, it puts a completely different spin on things. Spong says:

Miracles represent the edited and expanded understanding of the Matthean principle, namely that God is present in Jesus and all people will be united in him. It is a wonderful interpretive portrait. It points to the experience of life expanded and made whole in the presence of Jesus. That experience is literal. The story is not. Matthew calls people to enter that experience. It is not a call to believe in miracles, but a call to enter the one who makes all life whole.

Matthew wanted people to enter into the Jesus experience where eyes are opened to the Divine presence, where ears hear anew the message of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and blessedness, where we walk with renewed purpose leaving that which crippled us behind, and where we are moved to speak the language of God which is the language of love and hope and joy.

This is so much more than the literal message!

We’re called to a deeper relationship with the Divine than being an object to be acted upon. We are called to SEE, to HEAR, to KNOW, to GIVE and to LOVE with our hearts and souls, and so to be made whole.

Lenten blessings,


Jesus: The New Moses

(Sermon 1 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.)

I am fascinated by John Shelby Spong’s theory that the stories in the gospels follow the liturgical year of the Jews and that,

“To read the gospels properly… requires a knowledge of Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, Jewish icons and the tradition of Jewish storytelling. It requires an understanding of what the Jews called “midrash.” Only those people who were completely unaware of these things could ever have come to think that the gospels were meant to be read literally.”

Christians forget, or were perhaps never told in the first place, that Jesus was a Jew his entire life, as were his disciples and his followers. In fact, most Jesus followers were still practicing Jews – going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, reading the Hebrew scriptures, following Jewish law, and participating in Jewish festivals and holy days – until the 9th decade of the first century. Christians also tend to forget (or, again, were never told) that we have no written records AT ALL until Paul starts writing about 21 years after Jesus’ death. But it isn’t until about 42 years after the crucifixion that the gospel of Mark appears. Stories of Jesus were carried on by oral tradition in the synagogues from 30-72 CE. And even more unique Jesus stories emerged in the three decades after that as Matthew, Luke and John added more parables and stories.

(For the full video version, click here.)

So, Spong’s theory (that you can take or leave, but I believe has merit), is that if the Jews who followed Jesus worshiped as Jews in the synagogue until about 60 years after the crucifixion, if they presumably used the synagogue to tell stories of Jesus (as we know Paul did), then it makes sense that the Jesus stories they shared in worship had some tie to the Hebrew scriptures that were being read on that day. You see, synagogues followed prescribed readings throughout their liturgical year, just as many Christian churches follow the Common Lectionary. In the course of one year at the time of Jesus, a synagogue would work their way through the entire Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, or our Bible), as well as the prophetic writings and the psalms.

Through Spong’s research and study, he found significant correlation between the order of the Jewish liturgical year, and the content of the stories in Matthew (he also found the correlations in Mark and Luke, but this book and this sermon series will focus on Matthew).

Here’s how it worked… each Sabbath scripture readings would be read, a psalm would be sung or recited and then the rabbi would share thoughts on these scripture and/or invite others to speak. Now, a speaker wouldn’t stand up and extrapolate on the readings with stories that didn’t apply, they would tie Jesus in, just like I tie in stories on Sunday mornings. And it didn’t matter if the stories were factual or not (just like I don’t care if the stories I tell are factual), because they were (and are) told to make a point and to relate the essence of who the believed Jesus was and what he taught.

Therefore, to really understand what the author of Matthew was trying to convey, we need to understand the Jewish liturgy, Jewish symbols and Jewish history, or we risk assigning literalism where it wasn’t intended and missing the point.

I think of it this way… when my kids were younger I never saw a movie that wasn’t animated, and, as it works with kids, I saw them over and over and over again so that I could quote them ad nauseam. I still can’t help these phrases coming out of my mouth with my wife, Julie, even though she has no clue where they come from. For example, I’ll say, “that’ll do pig,” and she’ll look at my like I’m nuts because she’s never seen the movie Babe. I’m sure she’s wondering why I was calling her a pig! When I bring her a cup of coffee in the morning I love to say, “My life is but to serve you, my liege.” It comes straight out of Aladdin. But unless you’ve seen Aladdin, you wouldn’t know that.

So, if there are pertinent references back to Judaism, but we know next to nothing about Judaism, how will we know what they are really talking about?

Here’s a summary of the major points of correlation that Spong finds between the Jewish festivals and Matthew’s gospel:

Shavuot or Pentecost (May-June) – Moses receives the Torah at Mt. Sinai
Mt. 5-7 Sermon on the Mount

Rosh Hashanah (Sept – Oct) – Coming of a Messiah, Jewish New Year
Mt. 8-9 Miracles of Jesus
Mt. 11 John the Baptist

Yom Kippur (Sept – Oct) – Day of Atonement
Mt. 12 Breaking Sabbath rules, by whose authority did Jesus do things? 

Sukkoth (Sept – Oct) – Harvest Festival
Mt. 13 Eight harvest parables

Hanukkah (Nov – Dec) – Festival of lights, light of true worship returns to the Temple
Mt. 17-18 Eight stories beginning with transfiguration

Passover (March-April) – Birth of a new nation
Mt. 26-28 Last Supper through the resurrection appearances

We’ll begin in this first sermon to look at the parallels between the festival of Shavuot and the content of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.

Shavuot, or Pentecost, which takes place 50 days after Passover, celebrates Moses sermon on mountgoing up on Mt. Sinai and receiving the law from God. This is not just the 10 commandments, but the entirety of Jewish law contained in the Torah. Shavuot remembers this story and calls people to renew their commitment to following God’s laws.

Interestingly enough, Psalm 119 is always read for Shavuot, and the first two lines of the Psalm use the words “Blessed are those…”  The theme of this psalm is clear: as the people of God, you need to obey God’s laws. Now, imagine you are in the synagogue and have just heard the story of Moses going up Mt. Sinai, and then you sang Psalm 119, and someone stands up to offer commentary. They begin by saying that Jesus went up on the mountainside, and you’re thinking, “Wow, just like Moses went up the mountainside.” And then they told you that Jesus taught, “Blessed are those…” (what we now call the Beatitudes) and you recognize the echo of Psalm 119 in the words. Imagine that.

The similarities don’t stop there. The Sermon on the Mount is actually three chapters long (Matthew 5-7) and just begins with the Beatitudes.  It continues by extrapolating on those eight “Blessed are those…” statements as well touching on the 10 commandments in new ways. It sure sounds like Jesus is being positioned as the new Moses.

So, if we run with this concept of Jesus as the new Moses, how does this flesh out?

  • Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt
  • With Moses it was imperative that the people follow the laws… that was the deal. God will take care of you as long as you follow the laws.
  • Jesus is a new leader who is not only as good as Moses, but even better.
  • Jesus acknowledges the importance of the law, but says there is more to it. The quote is: “I have not come to abolish the laws, but to complete them.” How are they completed? The Sermon on the Mount tells us that basically they are completed with love, compassion, and mercy. And those three things will spiritually unshackle us from the things that bind us (our own form of slavery, if you will) – our egos, our baggage, our prejudice, our judgments, our anger, shame, hatred, guilt.
  • Yes, follow the laws, they will bring order and morality to society, but follow them with love, compassion and mercy.
  • Psalm 119 begins, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the Law of Yahweh! Blessed are those who keep your decrees…”
  • When Jesus talked about those who are blessed, it wasn’t about following laws so that God would give you a good harvest, 10 wives, and a flock of sheep. God’s blessings fall even on those who are struggling, who are poor in spirit and mourning. God has not forgotten you. And when you work for justice, have mercy, live in peace and integrity with a genuine, loving heart, you are blessed.

I imagine that to those early Jewish followers of Jesus, he was like the missing puzzle piece to them. Perhaps they were following the letter of the law, but felt that something was missing. Or they felt they must be doing something wrong because there was so much suffering around them. Jesus reaffirmed God’s love and care for them even though life was tough. God loved the people not just for following the law (though he didn’t argue that that was a good thing),  but even if they were grieving or meek, or depressed (poor in spirit). Jesus affirmed the blessedness of those who were striving to lift others up, be kind and forgiving, merciful and work for justice. And finally, he affirmed the blessedness of those who kept a pure heart… those who kept hope, love and joy alive, who didn’t get too cynical or too jaded, who didn’t lash out in hatred, anger, jealousy or prejudice. Blessed are you!

And, yes, blessed are each of us, when we don’t just go through the motions of our daily lives following the basic rules of earning a living, paying our taxes, going to church, and not breaking the laws. We are blessed and filled when we do these daily things with love, compassion and mercy. That’s the message.

Lenten blessings,


Jazz Theology

The story of Jesus fasting and praying in the wilderness, and then being tempted by the Devil, is read every year just before Lent because Lent has traditionally followed the course of Jesus’ ministry up through the crucifixion. For Matthew, Jesus’ baptism and subsequent time in the wilderness heralded the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ time in the wilderness invites each of us to reflect on the many times in life we’ve ended up in the wilderness. The wilderness can take many forms. It may look like loss, grief, illness, divorce, depression, addiction, death, or anything that makes you feel lost, alone, afraid, empty, sad, shameful, uncomfortable or out of control.

Given that Mardi Gras lands tomorrow, it seems that a little bit of jazz theology might just help us understand how to get through those wilderness experiences a little bit. Robert Gelinas, known for his writings on jazz theology, encourages us to think about what jazz has to teach us about God. He says,

Jazz theology is what happens when we express the basic elements of jazz in our relationship with God—syncopation, improvisation, and call and response. These allow us to find our own voice within Scripture;jazz experience life in concert with other practicing Christians; truly have time as servant leaders instead of time having us; and sing the blues so as not to waste any pain.

(For the full video version, click here.)

I’d like to focus on three things he talks about in his various writings: improvisation, the ensemble, and singing the blues.


In life we have nice stretches of time when everything seems pretty good, and then suddenly (maybe in a split second) everything changes – an accident, a diagnosis, a job loss, a death – and we find ourselves in a completely foreign landscape. We’ve never been here before, we’re not quite sure how to handle the situation, and so we improvise.

Now, I read somewhere that there is a difference between classical music and jazz music. Classical music is formal music that is performed as written, and is able to be reproduced. The skill of the classical musician is measured by their ability to imitate the original. Jazz music, on the other hand, is dynamic and unable to be reproduced. The skill of the musician is measured by their ability to improvise.

A jazz song has a basic form that the entire ensemble starts out playing, and then the leader calls out to one of the members, “Take a lead!” And off they go. Suddenly they are alone in the spotlight winging it… improvising. To improvise well, I believe, means being highly aware of the moment, deeply absorbed in the music, present to the melody and harmonies, the dynamics, and so forth, so when the call comes that it is your turn, you are grounded in the soul of the music.

So much of life is truly improvisation. If we follow the metaphor, the best improvising comes when we are present to the song of our lives and listen for where the flow is taking us. It’s partially having confidence in our own abilities to get through, and partially listening to intuition – to the Divine melody playing within us.


In order for a musician to improvise a great lead, they need a great jazz ensemble backing them up. The ensemble holds the beat and the chord progression and never leave you. Sometimes in church when we play as a group one of us messes up. I hate to admit it, but we probably make more mistakes than anyone is aware of. Yet, because we are so present to each other, we’re watching each other for cues, we are able to follow and continue to support each other, even when one person makes a mistake. Last week I skipped an entire line at the end of From a Distance, and the whole band just came right along, not letting me fall and make a complete fool of myself.

So, a strong support system is key for those times in the wilderness when we have to improvise. They move with you to the music of your life, they watch you for cues as to how you’re doing, they listen to you, hold you up when you might fall and you can trust them to always be there for you.

This is what our family and good friends do for us. But it works best if we have a support system that we’ve been open and honest with, so they know to keep an eye on us and how to best support our solo lead in the wilderness.


Now, from what I understand, blues music was around before jazz and can be considered a part of jazz (though not the other way around). Regardless, Gelinas says something that completely resonated with me, “sing the blues so as not to waste any pain.”

This reminded me of a conversation we had on our women’s retreat a few weeks ago about unnecessary suffering. Carl Jung said that so much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the “legitimate suffering” that comes from being human.

To flesh this out a bit, we talked about things like burying grief, not crying or not working through it (in other words not accepting the legitimate suffering of grief… not singing the blues when you should), and then realizing many, many years later that you’ve paid for that in other ways. Perhaps by burying your feelings in other ways, or in relationships that you wouldn’t let yourself commit to because you couldn’t let go, maybe that deeply buried grief got triggered at inappropriate times or in inappropriate ways. If only you’d let yourself deal with it at the time, it would have saved much suffering over the years.

If we sing the blues so as not to waste any pain, we live it, we feel it, we process it and then we release it when we are ready.

Here is all is in a nutshell: remember God is with you in the wilderness, flowing through your improve, upholding you through your friends and family (your ensemble), and helping you heal as you sing the blues.

Love & Light!


A Plains Silence

(This is the third, and final, in a sermon series about modern-day mystics.)

Whether she defines herself as such or not, to me Kathleen Norris is a modern-day mystic. She is well-known for her spiritual writings, much of which germinated in the silence of the Great Plains of North and South Dakota. Her language to describe these experiences is decidedly mystical. She speaks of personal experiences of the Divine, of the interconnectedness of all things, she is not promoting a particular theology or doctrine, but supersedes those with a deeper inner spirituality.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In her book Dakota, Kathleen Norris shares how living in the Great Plains impacted her life, her way of looking at the world, and her spirituality. I’ve distilled what I’ve read into three important lessons: silence, space and simplicity.


To even experience silence, true silence, is difficult these days – to get away from every manufactured or human sound. We can close our windows and doors, yet still hear the furnace kick in and the muffled street sounds. We can take a walk in the woods, yet still hear the traffic or planes overhead. Plus, we live in a culture that abhors silence. Many people seem to always need some noise, even if it is just the television or music on in the background. They won’t even leave their pets in silence! We have a rough time stopping, stilling ourselves, listening to the silence, waiting, seeking the face of God, and just being… it seems like doing nothing, but in essence we are doing something very important. We are finding our center. That quiet still place of calm within our souls needs to be cultivated, and it is much harder to do when we don’t have quiet in our outside world.

Norris grew up in Hawaii, went to college in Vermont, and then spent six years in New York City. From there she moved to her grandmother’s home in Lemmon, South Dakota (a town of about 1,200 people on the border of North and South Dakota and just outside of Standing Rock Indian Reservation). Can you imagine? New York City to rural South Dakota? I doubt many people could handle the switch!

Have you ever been to the Great Plains? Driven across North or South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas or Oklahoma? The Great Plains are actually even bigger than that, spanning the area west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. There is nothing for miles and miles and miles, but sweeping grassland. Yet, Norris learned to appreciate the “Plains silence” and the gifts it had to offer. She talks about the power the silence has to re-form you, to reconnect you to the cycles of the earth, and to teach you to wait and to hope, as the farmers wait and hope for rain. As she acclimated to her surroundings, she found that instead of lamenting the loss of urban life and stimulation, she sought more ways to quiet her life. She even stopped watching television and became an oblate, or associate member, of a monastery.

The amazing thing about cultivating that quiet calm place with in is that once that silence is absorbed into the depths of one’s soul, you carry it with you. Norris shared,

 [T]he Plains have changed me. I was a New Yorker for nearly six years and still love to visit my friends in the city. But now I am conscious of carrying a Plains silence within me into cities, and of carrying my city experiences back to the Plains so that they may be absorbed again back into silence, the fruitful silence that produces poems and essays.

Have you had the experience of walking into a chaotic situation, or crowded place, and yet it felt separate from you, as if it swirled around you, but it couldn’t disturb the groundedness and centeredness at your core. Silence is what cultivates this. It is sacred and healing.


By space I mean physical separateness. Being removed from the distractions of daily life oddly enough seems to give us the ability to see more clearly, more lovingly. Norris found that the isolation and solitude of the Plains paradoxically made her feel more connected to others in a positive way. Perhaps it is the ability to see the forest instead of getting hung up on the trees.

Space grants us perspective.

In her return visits to New York City, Norris said she was able to watch the diverse people around her from a place of amazement and joy. She found herself recognizing that each person is “a treasure-bearer, carrying our souls like a great blessing through the world.” Having space in her life gifted Norris with the awareness that there are “no strangers” and that “the gate of heaven is everywhere.”   In other words, we are all connected and access to the Divine is everywhere.


Norris shares some of her experiences as the artist-in-residence for the North Dakota Arts Council, aKathleen Norris job that took her throughout the entire state to teach poetry. Many times she found herself in very small rural schools, in towns with no motels (where she’d stay with a family), or if there was a motel, it was often on its last legs, with a rusty shower stall, a paper bath mat and a pay phone in the parking lot. The more civilized motels, she said, had that red and black flocked velvet wallpaper making her feel like she stumbled into a New Orleans bordello.

But over time, she was able to change her perspective and began to see the gifts of these grim surroundings and flourish there. These rooms “became as monks’ cells for her, full of the gifts of silence and solitude where she could knit, write and do serious reading.”

Living more simply, she insisted, is not about denigrating the body, but “a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society – alcohol, drugs, television, shopping malls, motels – that aim to make us forget.”

Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t deprived enough. It’s when we don’t have something, or someone, that we learn to have gratitude for them and for the smaller things in life. We also learn how much we really don’t need. Every time I go camping I realize how much I can live without and wonder why I really need so much stuff! At night I’m grateful for a warm meal over the fire, for the stars in the sky, and a dry tent and sleeping bag. They are things I don’t even think about at home.

Norris tells a story about a monk who went to visit one of the desert fathers, Abba Moses, and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

Silence, space and simplicity… these are the spiritual lessons of the Great Plains. For those of us who seek the face of God, it is important to find time to cultivate those things – even in small amounts – wherever we are. For it is in letting the silence soak into us that our souls become calmer and more peaceful; it is in finding space to be that we accept and treasure others more; and it is in living more simply that we live more in gratitude, lose some of our need for material things, and replace it with what is truly important: a deeper relationship with the Divine.



Living a Balance

(This is the second in a three part sermon series on modern day mystics.)

Allow me to use the familiar Bible story of Mary and Martha to reflect on some of the writings of Evelyn Underhill. You’ll remember that this infamous story involves a visit of Jesus and his followers to the home of Mary and Martha where they are offered hospitality, something to eat and most likely a place to stay. However, as Martha is diligently caring for her guests needs, Mary simply seats herself at Jesus’ feet to absorb his teachings. Martha gets frustrated with her sister and implores Jesus to “Tell her to help me!” To which Jesus calmly replies, “Martha, Martha! You’re anxious and upset about so many things, but only a few things are necessary – really only one. Mary has chosen the better part, and she won’t be deprived of it.”

(For the full video of this message, click here.) 

This scripture has been used – primarily – to extol the virtues of Mary’s dedication to Jesus. And, as we’re talking about mystics and contemplatives, too often they have become synonymous with withdrawing from the world and normal everyday life to pursue a constant, quiet, communion with the Divine. While Underhill, in what I have read, spends a great deal of time helping the reader to find the path to Oneness with the Divine, this isn’t the end of the line.

As spiritual beings we can experience unity with God, but as physical beings we Evelyn Underhill 1are also constrained to, as she calls it, our this-world life. Being all spiritual and close with God is not a pass from living in this world. In fact, she says, it actually signs us up for more responsibility.  The mystical life “is not a life of comfortable piety, or the enjoyment of the delicious sensations of the armchair mystic.”  There are terms to this new awareness, and these terms tell us that we don’t get to just slide through life doing less than our best. Nor are we relieved from making difficult choices, now we have even more difficult choices to make. The spiritual life “demands… immensely generous compassion, forbearance, forgiveness, gentleness, radiant purity, self-forgetting zeal.”

It seems to me that Underhill is calling us to a balance between Mary and Martha, between all-encompassing study, prayer and worship and a life of service. Each must feed the other.

Certainly, for Underhill, the contemplative (or Mary) part of one’s spiritual life is exceedingly important. In fact, her instructions for a deeper awareness and Oneness with the Absolute echo some of the same language that we heard from Thomas Merton last week.

One of the first things we must do, she says, is change our attention, which will enable us to see a truer universe. We must learn to experience life at a sensory level, beyond the labels we assign to things – “to escape the terrible museum-like world of daily life, where everything is classified and labeled” (Practical Mystic p. 17). When we see something or someone, we see it primarily with our minds as we jump immediately to the name (label) we’ve given it that will include our pre-judgments, analysis and critiques. This is not reality, this is an illusion we’ve created for ourselves to live in.

The mystic lives a life in which the emphasis lies on sensation rather than on thought. It is a “state of pure receptivity, of perfect correspondence with the essence of things.” It is moving beyond apprehension of thought to pure truth.

This difference in living is like the story she tells of “No-Eyes” and “Eyes”:

The old story of Eyes and No-Eyes is really the story of the mystical and unmystical types. “No-Eyes” has fixed his attention on the fact that he is obliged to take a walk. For him the chief factor of existence is his own movement along the road; a movement which he intends to accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as he can. He asks not to know what may be on either side of the hedges. He ignores the caress of the wind until it threatens to remove his hat. He trudges along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but oblivious of the light which they reflect. “Eyes” takes the walk too: and for him it is a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder. The sunlight inebriates him, the winds delight him, the very effort of the journey is a joy. Magic presences throng the roadside, or cry salutations to him from the hidden fields. The rich world through which he moves lies in the fore-ground of his consciousness; and it gives up new secrets to him at every step. “No-Eyes,” when told of his adventures, usually refuses to believe that both have gone by the same road. He fancies that his companion has been floating about in the air, or beset by agreeable hallucinations. We shall never persuade him to the contrary unless we persuade him to look for himself. (A Practical Mysticism, A Little Book for Normal People, p.11)

Underhill calls us to train our faculties and our consciousness to feel and experience. This she calls ordinary contemplation.

What keeps us from experiencing the world with our senses? The mystics seem to unanimously agree. We are. She answers: “Thought, convention, self-interest. We throw a mist of thought between ourselves and the external world: and through this we discern, as in a glass darkly, that which we have arranged to see. We see it in the way in which our neighbors see it; sometimes through a pink veil, sometimes through a grey. Religion, indigestion, priggishness, or discontent may drape the panes. The prismatic colors of a fashionable school of art may stain them.  Inevitably, too, we see the narrow world our windows show us, not “in itself,” but in relation to our own needs, moods, and preferences…”

Once again, we are told that union with God can only be a union of love, a “self-mergence in the universal life, a giving oneself up to, a dying into or melting into the Whole.” Unity is not something to acquire, claim or hold, but to become.

So, if we can do these things… experience with the senses and recognize the illusion that we’ve created to be our world, we have begun to open ourselves to a point where Ultimate Reality can enter in.

The practice of meditation is also essential for Underhill’s path to unity with God. She explains that this helps us to recollect who we really are. Though she knows this is not easy and admits that the first 15 minutes of meditation is like “a time of warfare which will simply convince us of how unruly our attention and will are, and how far we are from the mastery of our own souls. But sticking with it will bring us to a place where we know the real us which is distinct from the world in which we live.”

Through these practices of ordinary contemplation and meditation, slowly but surely we will experience changes. We will be moved to get rid of old habits, old ideas, old prejudices, and have less of a need for material things. Plus, she says, one’s demeanor will change. There will be a quiet certitude and trust in the Eternal Love.

And this brings us full circle to Mary and Martha. Diligently practicing and exploring our spiritual sides, meditating, letting go of judgment and ego… all of these things take time and energy. It would be great if we could sit at the feet of the Master and work on these things all day, but the reality is that we live in this world. There is dinner to make, work to do, kids to attend to, oppression to fight, the poor to care for, and the sick to visit. We can’t just sit there basking in the glow we’ve discovered. We must continue to take the growth that we experience and merge it with our “this-world” life.

In Underhill’s opinion, our goal is not to create for ourselves the comfy mystical armchair where we can sit in cozy communion with the Fire of Love (I love all the ways she describes God, by the way). No, there must be a balance between work, prayer, self-discipline and social service… a balance between contact with the “present living world of time, and due renunciation of it.”

Both Mary and Martha’s positions have value and worth, but the practical mystic seeks balance.

Contemplation is not an end in itself. It is real only when it impels you to action. By our very existence then, in unity with the Eternal Essence, we bring to each moment the love, compassion, light, beauty, intensity, justice and hope of God.

Love & Light!


Realm of Contemplation

Perhaps you have heard of some of the more famous Christian mystics from the Middle Ages, many of whom have now been sainted by the Catholic Church… Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckart, Hildegard of Bingen? We rarely consider, or hear about, more recent and equally influential mystics in our midst, but I assure you that they have and do exist.

I’ve chosen just three to delve into –  Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill and Kathleen Norris – but there are many others.

Meister Eckart said, “Theologians may quarrel, but mystics of the world speak the same language.” This is how we know the mystics. They speak the same language… they tell us that God is unconditional, universal, unbounded, untethered Love, they speak of metaphors, poetry, symbols and mystery, they lean heavily on experience rather than rules and dogma, and they proclaim our Oneness with the Divine and the connectedness of all things.  When I think of influential modern-day mystics I think of John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, John O’Donohue, Joyce Rupp, Sue Monk Kidd, Joan Chittester, Matthew Fox… and many others. They may not have claimed or been given the description of mystic, but they speak the language. I think we speak the language here at Sacred Journeys.


As a brief overview of Merton’s life, he was born in France in 1915, mertonwas educated at Cambridge and Columbia Universities where a number of Christian writers had a profound influence upon him. He converted to Catholicism and was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1938. Shortly thereafter he became a Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky. He became a prolific spiritual writer and speaker. At the age of 50, he became the monastery’s first hermit and sadly died young, at 53, of electrocution. Still, Merton was a best-selling international author, mystic, monk and priest, and had considerable influence on the evolution of Christian spirituality in the 20th century.

It seems as difficult to explain or describe the practice of contemplation as it is to describe the Divine. Merton describes it this way:

“Contemplation is the highest expression of [one’s] intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith.” (New Seeds of Contemplation)

Contemplation is full awareness – complete knowing – of the reality of the abundant Source. It supersedes scripture, liturgy, words, music, art and any other ways our limited intellect and vocabulary has to understand God. Contemplation goes beyond.

In fact, it goes so far beyond this world and our egos that, Merton says, all other things must “die” – all other experiences must be momentarily lost – before they can be known from a higher viewpoint or a deeper level.

Perhaps we could consider looking at it like this… it is like walking a path up a mountain and you pass beautiful trees, waterfalls, rivers, lakes. You spend some time sitting and enjoying the view, but then realize you must let them go to continue your hike. Moving further up the path, you lose sight of those things, they are temporarily lost to you (metaphorically died to you) as you continue your journey. Then you emerge at a point so much higher that you can see everywhere you’ve been, including all the vistas you enjoyed before, but from a new perspective, with new awareness of how they are all connected.

And, yet, this metaphor falls somewhat short. Merton tells us that contemplation is about more than a new view or a new clarity about God where we can now hold God within a new box. Contemplation is being carried away by God, beyond boundaries and rules, into God’s freedom, mystery and creative love. Perhaps we need to be swept off the mountain path by a great wind that carries us far beyond anything we have ever known, to experience a freedom we never knew existed as gravity held us firmly rooted to the ground.

What keeps us from being fully awake, fully active, fully aware?  What keeps us from living a life of contemplation? What keeps us from experiencing spiritual wonder and spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life?  What keeps us from knowing our Oneness with the Source?

Merton says the obstacle that hinders our oneness is our self – “the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will. But this is merely our outward and “false” self which keeps us alienated from the reality of God. Then the false self becomes our god and we do everything for the sake of this self.”

The dying, therefore, that must occur is attachment to this false self. Detachment in order to achieve union with God is not about detaching from things, but from ourselves.

This is one of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes:

When we have escaped the “prison of our own false self” and enter by love into union with the “Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our souls” we will know true joy.

Love. We enter into union with God by love. And we can’t just love God without learning to love others. 1 John says, “Those who claim to be in the light but hate their neighbors are still living in the dark. But those who love their neighbors are living in the light and need not be afraid of stumbling.” One of the paradoxes of the mystical life, Merton claims, is that “one cannot enter into the deepest center of oneself and pass through that center into God unless one is able to pass entirely out of oneself and empty themselves and give themselves to other people in the purity of a selfless love… In God there can be no selfishness.

Merton is sensible enough to ponder whether there might be even twenty people in the whole world who love perfectly, who have entered into union with the Divine perfectly through this love, who are constantly aware of the reality of the Source. In the end, he admits “I don’t believe that there are twenty such [people] alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart.”

Clearly he acknowledges to live in the realm of contemplation at all times is nearly impossible. But if what we strive for is union with the Divine, then we need to stay on the path and keep moving forward, keep practicing awareness of the Divine, recognizing a realm beyond ourselves.

A complete knowing and Oneness with God is achieved when we “die” to ourselves and the things of this world, when we recognize that our ego is merely our false self, and that clinging to and desiring the things of this world are not of God.  Letting go feels scary, if not impossible, but grants a freedom that we occasionally get glimpses of. It is a freedom that manifests in a love of all things and all people.

Love & Light!



Epiphanies: Music

This is the third week in a sermon series on Epiphanies.

Epiphanies are moments of “aha!” and moments of connection with the presence of the Divine. In the past when I’ve asked people to tell me times when they’ve felt the Spirit I’ve often gotten blank stares. “What do you mean feel the spirit? I just go to church and sing and pray… am I supposed to feel something?”

In my humble opinion, we’ve all felt the touch of God, we’ve all plugged into that spiritual electricity, people just don’t necessarily know that’s what it is. My hope was that this series would help people identify the presence of God through real experiences – creativity, art, music and poetry. The more conscious we are of the paths that the Spirit can take to touch us, and the more conscious we are of God in our lives on a daily basis, the more in tune we will be with the Divine and the more that will manifest itself in our lives in positive, healing ways.

Music is a part of almost every spiritual tradition… from Native American chanting, to Jewish cantors, to Gregorian chants and Taize music, there are the whirling dervishes of the Sufi, choirs and bell choirs, Kirtan music of the Hindus, orchestras and bands. In every age, every culture and every religion, music has been deeply woven into our spiritual lives.

You may or may not know that the chapters in the book we call Psalms were hymns; songs of praise as well as songs of lament. They were poetry that was sung or perhaps chanted. The Hebrew word Selah occurs 71 times in 39 of the Psalms and was most likely a musical direction of some sort. And the Psalms themselves call us to make music.

In fact, the Bible is full of stories of music.

  • After the Israelites left Egypt, Moses and the people all sang a song of triumph and praise to Yahweh. (Ex. 15:1-18)
  • Again, after the flight from Egypt, Miriam (Aaron’s sister) gathered up the women who then danced and played tambourines while Miriam sang (Ex. 15: 20-21)
  • David played his harp or lyre to King Saul to soothe him (1 Sam 16:23)
  • David and all the people celebrated with songs, harps, lyres, tambourines, rattles and cymbals (2 Sam. 6:5)
  • In Matthew, after Jesus has shared the bread and wine with his disciples, they sang a song before going out to the Mt. of Olives (26:30)
  • In the NT, Paul exhorts us to sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs

And this is just a small sampling!

Music helps us to feel. It is an emotional language, and as such links us to the depths of ourselves and has the ability to link us to something greater than ourselves.

While playing music, or listening to music alone, can be wonderful, it adds so much more to be playing as part of a band (or orchestra), or singing as part of a choir or part of a congregation or audience.

Playing with a band, as I have on and off for 10 years now, has often been an amazingly spiritual experience. There are times when the music comes together, the harmonies meld and flow, and the boundaries between one another become permeable. For a few moments separateness disappears and we are one with each other. The same thing happens when an audience is swept up in the swells of a great piece of music.

In both cases our vibrational energy increases, the group is brought to a higher level of awareness and spiritual experience. It is a spiritual high. It doesn’t matter if it is an upbeat piece of music, or a sorrowful one, something about the melodies and harmonies, and probably the heart of the musicians, draw the pieces of our lives together to a deeper place. Some of us experience this as goosebumps, some as tears, some as awe or euphoria. Whatever the case, I’d call it a Divine epiphany… we are no longer individuals, we are more, or one, or all.

The church has had its opinion about the type of music that “should” be played in worship… it had to be “sacred” music… something that sang about God, or was felt to be “appropriate” to play for the Divine. Hymns about God, or classical music, or chanting. In the 1950s most churches condemned rock ‘n roll and dancing as being of the devil. It wasn’t until Vatican 2 (1965) that the Catholic Church revised their stance on music and allowed guitars and more folksy music in the mass.

In my opinion, if music lifts our hearts and souls, if it connects us on a level of joy and celebration – even if it doesn’t mention God – then it is sacred and filled with the Spirit. If music has deep meaning, makes us stop and think, connects us to deeper feelings that are more mellow or even sad, and draws us together in that deeper emotional place – even if it doesn’t specifically talk about God – we are experiencing the Divine as our connection to one another. The music draws us out of our egos and into a deeper place.

Yes, secular music can speak to us in a spiritual way!

And then there is the ability of music to heal. Music can lift us out of a bad mood, or help us to mourn, express sadness or celebrate with joy. In 1 Samuel, David played his harp to help King Saul with depression, making him a music therapist!

Music therapy includes creating singing, moving to, and/or listening to music to help with healing, cognition, and communication. It is used in many different settings for many different reasons including: hospitals, schools, hospice care, for people fighting cancer, for kids with autism, for Alzheimer’s patients and women giving birth.

Julia Cameron, in The Vein of Gold, says, “Music speaks to the wounds we have no words for. It heals where all else fails.”


Here’s another thought… we may not be able to play a musical instrument, or sing a note, but our voices are still our instruments. Our words carry vibrations and energy that are positive or negative. We are all capable of sending out healing words to others and the world. Or not.

Music is sacred. It is a window to the soul and a window to the Divine. It provides us with epiphanies – transcendent experiences of connection to God. I encourage you to recognize the spirit that is present when your heart is touched through music. And I encourage you to use music to heal and energize yourself and others.

Love & Light!






Epiphanies: Art

(This is the second in a sermon series on Epiphanies.)

Art seems to be a neglected topic in the churches. Sure our churches are filled with all art 3manner of art – stained glass windows, music, sculpture, murals, paintings, poetic liturgy and even some liturgical dance. But, have you ever heard a sermon preached on the in-breaking of God through art, or the potential art has for facilitating epiphanies in our spiritual lives? I’d bet a month’s salary you haven’t (not that I’m a betting person). To be fair, I haven’t preached it either, until now.

(For the full video version, click here.)

I think this neglect has at least something to do with the lack of scripture on the topic.  In addition, I think it also has to do with the fact that art and the connection it gives us to the Divine and to others takes us into the realm of the mystical. Frankly, the church doesn’t deal with that realm very well. It’s too personal, too experiential, it opens the door to different interpretations, and deep feelings, and a one-on-one connection to God. The institution is far safer and more in control when people rely only upon worship and priests/pastors for that connection.

So, let’s talk about art. Here are some of the big questions around art and religion: Can art be a way to God?  Is art in the life of faith a luxury … or a necessity?

Now, I’m not an artist, though I must admit I’m envious of those who have that gift… upon whom the Holy Spirit has breathed creativity, imagination and skill. And, yet, even artists have struggled with the question of whether their commitment to the world is simply superfluous. It’s not feeding the poor, advocating for justice or visiting the prisoner. Is art important? Is it a way to experience God? Does it matter for spiritual growth or society, for that matter? Seems when our schools are forced to make budget cuts and they immediately choose to cut art and music that, sadly, the message is that these things are unimportant or unnecessary.

And yet, art is not simply visual beauty and enjoyment or creative expression… it is universal communication. The language of art is symbol and image; it is the language of the Spirit and of dreams. It is wordless and so transcends words and language barriers to the sensual and the experiential. It is perhaps a better means for conveying the sacred as it is less limited than our spoken words. As N.T. Wright stated in Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense,

“The point is this. The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are the highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way.”

Art has a great capacity to help us transcend this world to touch that Something More that we all yearn for, because art is an act of the soul. And creating art is an act of vulnerability and risk because it enables us a glimpse into another’s soul… that is sacred in and of itself.

But more than that, art points beyond itself. It leads us into the emotional, experiential world where we are drawn into sadness, joy, despair, hope and so much more. Art has the capacity to connect us with our hearts, which is where we find our connection to the Divine. Marcus Borg, in his book “The God We Never Knew” explains,

Spirituality is thus for the hatching of the heart. Whatever helps to open our hearts to the reality of the sacred is what we should be engaged in.”

Spirituality is far beyond the judgmental, finger-pointing God that many people grew up with. Spirituality is even beyond the prayers, hymns, and liturgy of the church. Spirituality is about opening the heart to God. It is about epiphanies, the aha moments when we recognize the presence of the Divine here and now.

The Yale Divinity School magazine, Reflections, published an issue in 2015 focusing on questions of art and religion.  They invited some of their graduate students, who also had, or were working on, degrees in the arts to contribute their thoughts. There were three that struck a chord for me.

Megan Mitchell, a master’s student in religion and the arts spent time helping to create public murals not only in the U.S., but also in Africa and Haiti. What she discovered is that art opens a space for listening and attention. She comments, “That’s what the world needs now: space to take notice of each other, our own souls, and the still small voice of [God]…”

Jeremy Hamilton-Arnold, a master’s student in religion and the visual arts and material culture, spoke of watching people who came to visit the art Gallery at Yale where he worked. Religious and non-religious groups alike “venerate their favorite artists and works. They uplift the art museum space as “sacred,” comporting themselves with religious-like postures. They hush and clasp their hands before dimly lit images. The works seem to elicit awe and reverence.”

And Meredith Jane Day, a Master’s of Divinity student and a member of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music related a story of preparing for Advent that year. She and a small group of 20 people all gathered for eight hours in a library in New York City to spend time in silence, wonder and discussion about the season. To facilitate the day, the group was shown photos of famous paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Meredith commented that, “The room was full of brilliant seminarians, clergy, and academics, but it was the art that gave us something we could not have offered on our own. It provided a spiritual avenue for confronting our humanity, at the same time assuring us of a mysterious glory within.”

To bring us full circle and answer some of the questions we started with…

Clearly, yes, art can be a way to experience the Divine. It can provide the potential for epiphanies … unexpected, potent moments where the Spirit breaks in. Art can facilitate a deeper listening and attention to God, but also to one another, and oneself. Art draws us into a space of reverence, awe and a sense of the holy. And, art helps us to delve into aspects of our shared humanity, while drawing us deeper into the ineffable presence of God within.

Church and life without the arts would be significantly lessened, and our ways to the Divine curtailed, were we to omit art as too secular, or too sensuous, or too frivolous.

Perhaps in the strictest sense, art in the life of faith is a luxury (certainly we can exist without it… unlike food, water and shelter). But who would want to? Truly we are so blessed by the artists in our midst – the painters, writers, sculptors, dancers, photographers, and so many others – how can their gifts not be of God? So, if the gift of art, done with heart, is a gift of the soul and a gift of the Divine, if it helps us transcend this plane of existence and experience Something More, then perhaps, by design, it is necessary.