Courage to Live

The death of Moses could almost be seen as almost the perfect death. The story in Deuteronomy 34 tells us that he was 120 with good eyesight and good health – “still strong and quite vigorous.” He was loved and revered by his people. God gave him a glimpse into the wonderful future that was to await his family and his tribe. Then Moses is gone… it’s almost as if he has just fallen asleep. The only downfall to all of it was that Moses never got to experience the promised land for himself (Jewish legend says this is because he didn’t obey one of the finer points of God’s instruction about getting water from a rock). Nevertheless, the people, per tradition, spent 30 days in mourning before they passed on the reins to Joshua.  30 days…

Many polls and studies show that when the public is asked how long it should take to mourn the death of a loved one, the most common answer is “48 hours to 2 weeks.” In truth, we have barely begun grieving in that time frame. One researcher said it takes at least 2 years. A therapist I worked with said it takes a year for every 5 years you were with that person. Of course, everyone is different.

(For the full video version, click here.)

While death is the primary event we grieve, and we’ll deal specifically with that in this message, grief is a normal response to divorce, job loss, moving, empty nest, broken relationships and just about any major transition.

When I asked what grief feels like, these were the answers I received yesterday:

  • Broken heart
  • Heavy
  • Empty
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Lost
  • Alone and lonely
  • Like everything should just stop
  • Exhaustion
  • Hard to think and function
  • Overwhelming sadness

Learning to deal with grief is part of our spiritual journey in many ways. Of course, all religions have traditions and observances for the purpose of remembering the dead and helping the living to heal – prayers, ceremonies, rituals, songs. Also, when we grieve we often find ourselves grappling with huge life questions like why did this happen? where is this person now? will I see them again when I die? is there an afterlife? But perhaps what makes processing grief so important to the spiritual path is that it aids in our healing and helps lead us toward wholeness.

There is no way to go through life untouched by grief. The only difference is how we process grief. American-Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her book Death: The Final Stage of Growth, says, “Our choice isn’t to avoid pain; our choice is only to permit pain to be experienced fast and hard or to be experienced slow and hard; that is our only choice.”

Processing grief and continuing to live takes courage.

In our culture, I think we run a greater risk of intellectualizing death and stuffing the emotions, instead of allowing ourselves to feel and process. Being overly emotional, especially for any length of time, is seen as weakness and instability. No one knows how to respond to the widow or widower who is still openly emotional over the loss of their loved one after a few months or a year. So the unwritten rule in our society is to say, “I’m fine.”

But intellectual acceptance does not help us process the grief and begin to heal unless we bring our emotions along.

Kübler-Ross tells a story about a woman named Carol who was an energetic, vivacious, and professional woman. She and her husband, Russ, had three kids. And then one day, when he was 43, he swiftly and unexpectedly died in her arms. Carol tranquilized herself to avoid the pain. One professional caregiver even offered the stoic advice of, “We don’t cry about these things, do we?” So they didn’t. Carol and her three kids were brave and strong and braced themselves against the surges of emotion. Eighteen months later Carol was experiencing psychosomatic illness and sensations, she had suffered severe weight loss, had lost her job, been through three counselors, and was unhappy and angry.

A visit to her home found Carol in a blue dress, the home redecorated in a blue theme, and a blue car in the drive. Of course, blue was Russ’s favorite color. His clothes were there, his shaving gear, his smoking apparatus, his easy chair; every room had his picture; the home was sanctified as a memorial to Russ.

“When will you let Russ die?” Kübler-Ross and her team asked. “I don’t want him to die,“ she replied. “But he is dead.” “I know he is dead, but I don’t want him to die.”  Intellectually, she knew his death had occurred; emotionally, and to her detriment, she denied it.

Kübler-Ross explains, “Persons in grief have a whole jungle of emotions in their guts which need to be expressed in some way. Sometimes openly, sometimes by talking, sometimes by crying, sometimes poetically, sometimes through ritual: there are many ways, but people must have the opportunity to express real feelings because unresolved grief is a destructive horror. People need to be encouraged to talk about the person who died, to remember them, to share about them, and perhaps even to talk to the person who is now dead.”

But we’ve become so uncomfortable with death that going through the receiving line at a wake is torture for many folks. It’s a relief when that is over and people hope they can avoid the whole painful subject from then on. When they see that person again, avoidance is the name of the game. After all, we don’t want to upset them, do we? But talking about the deceased person is one of the things that most helps the grieving/healing process. Consider the funeral like a surgery and then the months after as the time for healing and recovery. We don’t have any problem asking someone how their leg, or shoulder, or back is doing, do we? In the same way, we need to learn to continue to extend care and compassion to those who have lost someone, especially during the first year after their death.

If we have the courage to deal with death when it comes into our lives (in whatever form) – to accept it as an important and valuable part of life – then, whether we are facing our own death, or that of a loved one, we will grow and learn to find meaning again in our own lives.

Here’s something to consider: what if the moments of greatest wounding in our lives are also the place where the Divine meets us and brings us transformation for the next stage of our lives? What if our healing can bring us to new purpose and meaning?

It takes courage to sit with our emotions.

It takes courage to process the grief.

It takes courage to seek out those people who can help us to heal.

It takes courage to discover what we love in life that is bigger than our wounds.

It takes courage to live again…

… but living, and living fully with purpose and meaning, is what honors the lives of those who have gone before us and will bring us to our own deaths with a greater sense of peace and wholeness.

Love & Light!




Thoughts on Mercy

The Bible is not the inerrant word of God… that is not an opinion. That is fact. The Bible was written over the centuries by people who wanted to record the faith stories of people we know of as the Jews, the Hebrews or the Israelites. It was about their growing relationship with God, their continuing evolution of understanding of the Divine. It was their attempt to convey that knowledge, relationship and understanding in words and stories.

Within their ancient understanding, God was responsible for all the good that they were mercyblessed with, and God was responsible for the bad that came their way. Their believed God could manipulate life and death, peace and war. God could be generous and merciful, or God could be vengeful and punishing. Given all this, it was appropriate and even necessary for the people of that time to pray, beg and plead with God to go easy on them, to forgive them and have compassion on them… in other words to be merciful to them.

(For the full video version, click here.)

Exodus 33:19 sums up how they believed God operated when it came to mercy. In the passage God says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” God appears to be very capricious in nature in this ancient worldview.

Mercy is mentioned anywhere between 130 and 230 times in the Bible, depending on which translation you look at. Here’s a sampling, according to Scripture:

  • God exterminated the Northern Kingdoms “without mercy” (Joshua 11:20)
  • God had no mercy on the babies or children of Babylon (Isaiah 13:18)
  • Jeremiah declared that God would not allow mercy or compassion to keep God from destroying the king of Judah and all who were associated with him. (Jeremiah 13:14)
  • In Zechariah God withheld mercy from Jerusalem for 70 years. (Zechariah 1:12)
  • God is merciful to Lot and his daughters, even if not to Lot’s wife (who turns to salt) or to Sodom and Gomorrah, which is destroyed (Genesis 19)
  • Nehemiah 9:31 says God is gracious and merciful
  • In Deuteronomy 4:31 God is a merciful God who will not destroy or abandon you
  • The Psalms speak over and over again of God’s merciful nature, but also cry out over and over again for mercy

Does God actually make a decision to be merciful or not merciful? Does God choose to love or not to love? to be compassionate or not?

I personally don’t think so (you, of course, are free to disagree with me). It seems to me that none of those choices are even possible for God. To be unloving, uncompassionate or unmerciful is to be unGod.

When a tragedy happens and someone says,“Lord, have mercy,”Does that mean God is not being merciful to the victims of natural disaster, death, illness, poverty or war? Do we have to ask, plead, beg or pray for God to have mercy? Does it mean that God somehow had control of that fire? Or that hurricane? Or that illness? Or that war? Or that life? Or that outcome?

Again, I don’t think so.

Mercy is not what God I(when God feels like it)… mercy is what God is. And mercy is what we do when we are connected at a deeper spiritual level to life around us.

The evolution of spiritual thought that Jesus tries to draw people to is that when we have true knowledge of God, we KNOW that God is and has always been merciful. What God then desires of us – or what that true knowledge will lead us to – is being merciful ourselves.

Twice in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 when God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifices.” So, what does it mean? God doesn’t want or need our insincere worship (or back then, sacrifices). Don’t put on a good face claiming to know what the Divine wants. If you truly had experience of Divine love, grace, mercy and compassion, then you, too, would act in the same way. You would show mercy. You would be gentle even to those who did not deserve it.

As Anne Lamott says in Hallelujah Anyway, “Marcy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolveable, forgiving the unforgiveable.” It would be miraculous!

I read a very profound statement somewhere: “Mercy without action is pity and action without mercy condescension.”

The legend of the Holy Grail has it that one day Sir Launfal rode off determined to find the Grail, the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper.  On his way out of the city, he came upon a beggar who was desperate for a little money so that he might eat.  Launfal, knowing what the church expected of him but at the same time filled with derision for this lowly man, sneered at him, looked with contempt, and while still on his horse, tossed a few gold coins at the beggar’s feet.  Despite his ravenous hunger, the beggar knew himself to be a human being, loved in the eyes of God.  He refused the money.  Launfal went on his way devoting years of his life in the pursuit of the Grail he never found.

There was no spiritual transformation for Sir Launfal, no compassion, no understanding, no true mercy. Simply doing what the church “expected” of him did nothing to make him, or another human being, more whole.

John Shea, in his book Gospel Light tells this story, “At a court trial Lei Yuille, an African-American woman, explained why she and her brother helped Reginald Denny, the fallen white truck driver, during the April 1992 riots in LA. They were watching a television newscast “reporting live” and saw Reginald Denny being beaten. “My brother was in the room. He looked at me and said, ‘We are Christians; we’ve got to help him out.’ I said, ‘Right.’” Then they got into their car and went to help the injured man.

As Shea points out, “Spiritual teachers stress that the flow of mercy is not the result of reasoned argument. It happens naturally when a deeper identity is realized.” When we remember our common humanity and our spiritual oneness, mercy emerges naturally.

Mercy is not just something “bad” people need. Mercy is something we all need to receive and to give, not only to others, but also to ourselves. Mercy acknowledges that we screw up, but that love is a higher order. Mercy calls us to remember that we don’t know all the factors in anyone else’s life, nor are we fit to judge. Mercy reminds us that we all have bad days, make mistakes, say the wrong thing, but we don’t need to spend our lives berating ourselves or beating ourselves up for it.

Lamott once said, “You can either practice being right or practice being kind.”

Love & Light!


It’s hard to be humble!

The letter to the Philippians is the most affectionate of Paul’s letters. Perhaps because the church in Philippi was the first European church he planted. Perhaps because they cared for Paul, sent him gifts when he was in prison and were concerned about his safety. Or perhaps because Paul seems to be nearing the end of his life and fears he may never see them again. Whatever the case, this is the most caring of all of the letters we have of Paul and he fills it with words of hope, joy and consolation.

(For the full video version, click here.)

Paul also seems to want to share some final words, parting advice based on what he’s learned. In this specific passage he touches on their mutual life in Christ and pulls their heartstrings a little to essentially say that “if our relationship and history mean anything to you, then please stay united in your convictions and your love. Don’t let it all pass away if I’m not here anymore.” This is the one thing Paul says would make him happy – to know all his work was not going to pass away with him. To accomplish this unity he says, “there must be no competition among you, no conceit, but everybody is to be humble…”

I’d like to address the “be humble” part of that statement because the concept of humility can be tricky to grasp. And, the more I delve into the topic, the more I believe there is a deep spiritual need for humility on the spiritual path.

To define humility, I think it helps to define what it is not. Humility is not:

  • being proud, haughty or arrogant
  • being full of oneself
  • putting yourself above others

But it is also not…

  • putting oneself down
  • self-deprecating
  • low self-esteem
  • downplaying one’s assets
  • being insecure of oneself

So, what is humility? I believe humility is:

  • Honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses
  • Ego awareness
  • Having a beginner’s mind, willingness to learn no matter how good you are at something
  • Knowing we don’t have all the answers, comfortable saying “I don’t know.”
  • Not judging
  • Seeing yourself as equal to others

But “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble…” If you know me, you know, I’m not one to brag about my preaching ability. In fact, I’m constantly humbled by the fact that folks actually return every week to hear me speak! I’m suhumblere there are better preachers out there, but I can’t help being critical when I hear others preach. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard. I’ve also been to a few funerals over the years where I left thinking, “I really need to figure out how to lead my own funeral…”

“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble…” I’ve had some fairly big screw-ups in my day. I’ve said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing, made poor choices… enough to make me carry a decent load of guilt. And there were years that I wasn’t willing to let that guilt go because surely I must be worse than everyone else. I wouldn’t accept anyone’s forgiveness (not really, anyway), nor God’s forgiveness, which I know is always there, because my screwing up was beyond forgiveness. I was too awful a person to deserve anyone’s forgiveness or compassion. There’s no humility in that… to think that I’ve messed up worse than everyone else and that forgiveness is beyond me. It’s almost pride in my screwing up!

“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble…” I’ve never believed in wearing clerical robes or sitting up front in the throne chair “presiding” over a service. I appreciate respect, but I didn’t want it because I had a title. I wanted folks to know that I’m really not that much different (aside from vocation and education) than anyone else. I wasn’t loved any more by God because I stood behind a pulpit every Sunday. That is truly how my heart feels about all this. Which, in my humble opinion, is a fairly good example of being humble… right up to the point where I start judging other pastors for not doing it the same way.

John Shea, in his book On Earth as it is in Heaven, tells the story of a foremost teacher of a certain musical instrument who was giving lessons to a small class of eight. First he instructed them as a group. Then he would move from student to student to give them individual counsel. One of the students noticed that the great teacher was mumbling to himself as he moved from student to student. The student wanted to know what the teacher was saying, but she did not want to ask. So, as the teacher approached her, she stopped playing and listened intently. She caught what the teacher was saying.  Under his breath to himself, barely audible, the teacher was saying, “Allah knows. I don’t.”

Here is the foremost teacher of this musical instrument constantly reminding himself that he needs to be open to learning from even his students. Shea says, “he holds his knowledge lightly, always countering with ‘not-knowing.'”

From what I’ve read of Dom Helder Camara, he was a pretty good example of a humble person. He was the Brazilian Catholic Archbishop, 4-time nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize, countless awards from foreign universities, becoming second only to Pele in the international recognition he received. But he lived in a modest 3-room house behind a church, wore brown cassock adorned with a simple wooden cross and ate every day at the bar on the corner with construction workers and alcoholics. Camara was a staunch advocate of the poor and oppressed and believed the church needed to work not just for the people, but with the people

One article written about his life said that “Camara refused to live in the Episcopal Palace, and he liked recalling how one day, at a crowded meeting in the palace, he had persuaded a peasant to take the only remaining seat – the episcopal throne. Another favorite anecdote that he recounted with great glee concerned Mother Teresa. When she asked him how he managed to retain his humility, Camara replied that he had just to imagine himself making a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, not as Jesus but as the donkey who carried him. Years later Mother Teresa reminded Camara of this conversation, saying that she had adapted his advice to Indian conditions by thinking of herself serving God as an old cow.

In 1985, Camara, by then aged 75, retired as archbishop. In his place, Pope John Paul II selected a very different man, Dom Cardoso Sobrinho. At the ceremony it was already clear that there would be fundamental change: whereas frail and weather-beaten Camara wore as usual his scruffy cassock, Sobrinho, a large and healthy man, wore ornate purple vestments, with a huge gold cross. Camara never complained publicly, but one of his closest friends said that his eyes filled with tears whenever he discussed events in his old diocese. The close group of progressive priests and lay people who had gathered around Camara was disbanded. The human rights campaign was effectively ended.”

This is where we see that being humble has a deeply significant spiritual component. So much so that I’d say it is impossible to grow spiritually and truly walk the spiritual walk without increasing in humility. Why? Because humility demands recognition that we are all an equal part of the tapestry of the Universe. If we are humble enough and attentive enough we’ll recognize that we’ve hidden this shared oneness from ourselves. We’ve bought into the illusion that we are sometimes better, sometimes worse than everyone else, but not so much the same.

I do know this, without humility we’ll “help” others “less fortunate,” rather than serving as equals. Without humility we can’t extend genuine compassion . Without humility we won’t strive for social justice and what is best for all people. Without humility forgiveness, graciousness and mercy become much more difficult. Without true humility we lack the one element we need to seek understanding instead of condemning. Without humility we will never achieve the unity Paul so fervently hoped for.

In all humility,



In the parable in Matthew 21: 23-32, we hear the story of a landowner who asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son says “no,” but then does it anyway. The second son says “yes,” but then doesn’t go. When Jesus asks the chief priests and elders which son has done the father’s will, of course, they respond that the first son did the father’s will.

By their answer, we see that the religious leaders value action over words. But this son also changed his mind. John Shea, in On Earth as it is in Heaven, points out that, “If the religious leaders endorse doing over saying, they also have to endorse the change of mind that brought the first son to obedient action. It is this ability to change one’s mind that Jesus wants to emphasize. Both John the Baptist and Jesus have stressed that metanoia – a change of mind – is needed to enter the kingdom of God. ”

(For the full video version, click here.)

Metanoia is a change in one’s life resulting from a significant spiritual encounter or experience

As Joan Chittester reminds us, metanoia isn’t simply about changing our mind, metanoia (1)we do that all the time about all kinds of things in our lives. Metanoia is much deeper than that.  It is an interior changing of the way we look at life. It changes us from those egotistical, judgmental, power hunger, authority wielding religious leaders to humble, compassionate, we’re-all-in-this-together people.  We remember that we are not the center of the universe. We are a work in progress, as is everyone else, and we begin listen for God’s voice and to look for what God has to teach us everywhere and in everyone.

Einstein once said, “Everything has changed but our thinking.” The mind clings to “we’ve never done it that way” or “that’s not what I was told,” or it holds onto past moments or information. The mind doesn’t like to ride the new that is happening. But the only way to enter into life – aka the kingdom of heaven, enlightenment, or a higher level of consciousness – is to embrace a new way of thinking and being.

Walter Kania, in his book Healthy Religion, suggests that metanoia, true, deep, inner change, is required for spiritual growth and it can be seen when a person:

  • Moves into a state of compassion, love, and kindness
  • Is released from fear
  • Becomes nonjudgmental
  • Loses the need to control or change others
  • Becomes independent of the good opinion of other people
  • Becomes inner rather than outer-directed
  • Loves and accepts others without conditions
  • Is open to change
  • Is willing to learn and grow
  • Is open to the truth and experience of others
  • Is at peace with themselves
  • No longer needs the approval of others
  • Has abandoned the ego
  • Lives at a higher level of consciousness.

Here is an amusing story from the Sufis:

There was a case against Mulla Nasruddin in the court, and the judge asked him, “How old are you, Nasruddin?”

And he said, “Of course, you know and everybody knows I am forty years old.”

The judge was surprised, “But five years ago, you were also in this court. When I asked you then how old you were you said forty. How is this possible? After five years you are still forty.”

Nasruddin said, “I am a consistent man, sir. Once I say I am forty, I will remain forty forever. You can rely on me.”

In her book, The Heart of Waiting, Sue Monk Kidd says, “When change-winds swirl through our lives… they often call us to undertake a new passage of the spiritual journey… I should have remembered that the life of the spirit is never static. We’re born on one level, only to find some new struggle toward wholeness gestating within. That’s the sacred intent of life, of God – to move us continuously toward growth…”

We cannot grow spiritually without changing our minds, without entertaining new thoughts, without opening the window and letting in fresh air.

Love & Light!