Doing Good… it’s complicated…

In Galatians, Paul says, “Never grow tired of doing good.”do good

Seems pretty cut and dried, pretty obvious, doesn’t it? There is almost no commentary to such a simple, common sense point… except that doing good appears to have become a very complicated prospect.

Why? Well, here’s the list we came up with yesterday morning in worship:

  • We don’t trust people
  • We want to do good for people who deserve it
  • We make judgments about the people we would do a good thing for
  • We don’t have the time
  • We don’t have the energy
  • We don’t think it will be appreciated
  • We don’t think it will make any difference
  • We don’t want to be taken advantage of
  • We don’t want to spend the money
  • We’re not even considering anyone else because we’re so focused on ourselves
  • We don’t want to be called a “do-gooder”
  • We worry about what people with think about us
  • We analyze the situation to death before doing anything and so sometimes manage to do nothing

I wish I could say that I’m better than this, but the reality is that I’ve been guilty of all of these at one time or another. Hey, acceptance is the first step toward recovery, right?

(For the full audio version, click here.)

One of the things that Mother Teresa was good at reminding the rest of us is that we get so caught up in judging others that we don’t try to understand. We get so caught up in our fear of others, that we forget that they are one of us.

Truly, it doesn’t take much to do good, and it may even brighten another’s day, or put a smile on someone’s face. It may even restore someone’s faith in humanity for a moment. Or it may have no visible effect… it really doesn’t matter because the real change is within ourselves. Doing good, even for a brief instant changes the way we perceive the world, the way we live, and the way we think of ourselves and the Divine.

When John Wesley first began to form societies of Methodists in 1739, those early folks decided they needed some rules (I’m not sure what they were thinking, but there you have it). Not bad rules, and not too many rules, but a few good rules.  He came up with what Bishop Reuben Job has called Three Simple Rules:

Do No Harm

Do Good

Stay in Love with God. (That’s a paraphrase by Bishop Job because no one really understands what “Attend all of the Ordinances of God” means).

In fact, John Wesley’s most famous quote is, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can.  At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

So, I invite you to try this challenge for a week… try to live the injunction to “never grow tired of doing good.” Watch for the opportunities, don’t shoot them down in your head, pay attention to when you make judgments or excuses that keep you from doing good, and then let yourself do good without expectation. Remember it isn’t about others, it’s about us.






Liminal Space

We returned from Italy late Thursday night, and as you can imagine we visited a LOT of churches. It was also very crowded. Often we were with a local guide, walked the towns, got the history lecture as we went, spent 5-10 minutes inside a church to look around and take pictures that could never do justice to the enormity and beauty of these sanctuaries. This is the way it goes on a study tour in the height of tourist season. Now, it’s possible that I’m just weird, but I could’ve spent an hour or more in each place, not necessarily looking at statues and relics and paintings, but soaking in the spiritual energy accumulated over centuries of people worshiping and praying there.IMG_5416

(For the full audio version, click here.)

We had one exception to this rule… St. Paul’s Basilica, the second largest church in Italy, built on the site where his remains were buried. Perhaps because it was outside the city walls explained why it wasn’t very crowded at all – maybe two dozen people. And we actually were given 40 minutes in the church without having to be attached to an ear piece with someone explaining the history and art in the place! I wandered briefly and then just sat down, overwhelmed, and finally able to take the time to think, to absorb, to feel, to question, and to connect with the Divine.

I sat downIMG_5424 in the last row of chairs in front of the main altar, and tried to simply be and to process and understand all the conflicting thoughts and feelings that flooded into me. Basically, I’m not a fan of spending tons of money on church buildings when people are hungry, homeless and struggling on the outside of the walls. And, I think Paul, Peter, Jesus and Mary would be appalled at the riches poured into these buildings when worship wasn’t at all close to their main message. However, as I opened myself up to the energy of the space, I could understand why places like this were so important to the people. I felt like I’d entered another world. The “real” world of worries, work, family, struggle, taxes, politics and fear felt so far away.

This space was a liminal space, a thin space (as the Celtics would say) between the ordinary and the Divine. It is a threshold where you are no longer in the place you were, but are not in the place you are going either. It is a place of transformation, transcendence, and change. The experience brought me back around to my center, and I’ve been holding it close ever since.

Paul and I seem to be getting very close, which is a bit unnerving because I still disagree with a whole bunch of his theology. But he seems to sum up my struggle with his line from Galatians 6:15:

“It means nothing whether one bothers with the externals of religion or not. All that matters is that one is created anew.”

A church space, wherever it is, is meant to be a liminal space, a boundary where the ordinary and the holy meet. A place where people can be transformed, given hope, given perspective as they touch something more. But instead of being asked to focus on this feeling, this light, thIMG_5422is internal change and connection, people have been ingrained with the obligation to go to church, to behave certain ways and believe certain things.

Coming into this space should constantly remind us that we are not alone, that we are loved, that the core of our beings is light and love… and so is everyone else. We’ve just forgotten. And when we leave this space, we should carry just a bit of that with us so that we change the way we respond in the world and so slowly change the world.

When we make snap judgments against others, our liminal experience should help us to take a step back and say, “hang on, they are just like us deep inside… they can’t help the color of their skin, the religion they grew up with, their sexual orientation. What would it be like to be in their shoes with their experiences?”

When we jump to a place of frustration and impatience, remembering again the feeling, energy, and peace of the liminal sanctuary space can draw us back to a place of objectivity. The “real” world is not all there is.

When we find ourselves stuck in a rut, the liminal experience can give us courage to take the risks leading toward healing and wholeness.

When we beat ourselves up with guilt, regret and shame, this in-between place reminds us that we are MORE than that. It can help us to face our pasts, our brokenness and our baggage.

When we get caught up in complaining and negativity, remembering the feelings of the liminal space draws us back toward the positive, back toward hope, back toward loving oneself and others.

When we see injustice, the power of the liminal experience gives us the strength to stand up for others, to work for positive change.

The key to the liminal experience is that it helps create us anew. I know it is slow. I know we don’t necessarily trust it once we’re back in the “real” world… it feels too far away and maybe too magical to be true. But what if that liminal experience is more real and more true than what we think we perceive in our everyday lives? What if?

So, when you enter those liminal spaces, open your hands and feel the energy. Hug one another and feel the love. Let loose of your tight hold on the hurt that you think defines you and feel healing. Open your mouths in song and feel the oneness of voices blended in music and harmony. Expand your love to those around you and feel compassion expand your heart.

Be changed. Be made more whole. Be more loving, forgiving and compassionate. Be more joyful, hopeful and peaceful. Be who you were created to be… the beautiful, unique you. That’s what matters.


Freedom in Christ

Today is Independence Day, the Fourth of July, a day when freedom is celebrated freedom-in-christ1from sea to shining sea. It’s a different kind of freedom than the Apostle Paul talks about. Paul’s wasn’t talking about the freedom to own guns, or marry someone of the same sex, or get an abortion, or vote, or drive without a seat belt… it was about the freedom of our hearts and souls.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

My guess is that this understanding of freedom was as foreign to people in Paul’s time as it is to people today.

You see, Paul found a surprising thing happened to him after his mystical encounter with Jesus. All the laws he had upheld all those years as a devout Jew didn’t mean much of anything to him anymore. In Jesus, Paul found a unique expression of the Divine, and through that encounter with light and love he experienced healing, wholeness, and a transcendence of the loneliness, separation and emptiness our souls feel when we are disconnected from our Source. Paul had no idea life in the Spirit of God could be like this. He felt free.

Paul completely changed his tune. Now instead of enforcing the 613 laws of Judaism, he taught that life in the law leads to death. Not physical death, but the death of our souls and separation from God. When we focus too much then on trying to do all the right things and believe all the right things that we actually lose sight of God.

Richard Rohr calls this the “performance principle” and says, “Almost all of us start with a performance principle of some kind: “I’m good because I obey this commandment, because I do this kind of work, or because I belong to this group.” That’s the calculus the ego understands… but that game has to fall apart. It has to, or it will kill you.”

Sadly Paul’s assertion that the law leads to death has had little, if any, impact on Christianity. Most Christians today are enslaved by the laws created over the centuries by the churches… not by Jesus! We have lost the message of freedom in God that Jesus preached.

Some Christians will agreed that “good works” won’t get you into heaven. But then they’ll tell you that what gets you in is “faith.” Um, hello, that’s just another condition. I suppose it is easy to see how Paul could have led them to that conclusion. Paul emphasized over and over again that people just needed to have faith in Jesus to experience freedom. But for Paul that faith was an abolition of requirements because it involved a radically new way of seeing and being. It involved seeing all things as one with God, and being an expression of God’s love for all.

For Paul, freedom in Christ meant that people were free from having to measure up, freedom from trying to earn God’s love. And in turn we are free to love others without conditions, with judgments, without unhealthy attachments. And they were free from beating themselves up with guilt and shame. We seem to have forgotten this… or maybe never got it in the first place.

There is a Hasidic story, told by Megan McKenna in her book Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, of Rabbi Naftali…

It was the rabbi’s custom every evening after the sun went down to go walking through the town and then into the outskirts. It provided him with time to reflect and kept him up on anything that was happening, the comings and goings of his own neighbors. It was also the custom of the wealthy landowners to hire watchmen to watch the perimeters of their property at night, whether they were home or not, as a security measure. One evening after dark, the rabbi met one of these watchers and asked him whom he worked for and was given an answer… And the watcher assumed that the rabbi too was working for someone and asked him who his employer was.

The rabbi stopped in his tracks, for the question hit him squarely in his heart. Whom did he work for? Was it obvious that he served the Master of the Universe? He wasn’t sure, and so he didn’t answer right away. Instead he walked along with the man as he watched and walked the grounds of the rich man’s estate. Then the rabbi spoke: “I’m not sure that I really work for anyone, I’m sorry to say. I am a rabbi in this town.” After a long, silent walk, the rabbi asked the watcher, “Will you come and work for me?”

“Of course, I’d be delighted to, Rabbi,” the man responded. “What would my duties entail?”

“Oh, there would just be one thing you would always do,” the rabbi answered. “Remind me whom I work for, whose employ I’m in, and why I’m here – that’s all. Remind me!”

Perhaps that is why we form spiritual communities, to remind each other who God is in our lives and what freedom that gives us. Freedom to love and work for justice. Freedom to share peace and hope and joy. A freedom that is life-giving, because it is dependent upon no one else, nor on what people might do and say in our lives.

Happy Independence Day!