Pastor Kaye's Blog

I Am Listening

This week we’re presented with the story of the call of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-10). Just as Samuel had to intentionally stop and listen to Yahweh, so we also have to intentionally listen to God on this crazy journey we call life.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In this story a voice spoke to Samuel three times in the middle of the night Im-listening(was this out loud or within his heart, we don’t know) and he believed it to be Eli, the old priest he served. Finally Eli caught on and realized that God was trying to talk to Samuel. Eli instructed him, “The next time you are called, simply answer, yes, Lord, I’m listening.”

Samuel was lucky. He had someone with some experience and wisdom to tell him to pay attention and listen.

Today isn’t unlike Samuel’s time… prophets, people who claimed to have heard from God, were uncommon for a time. We’d probably be hard-pressed to find many folks today who believe that God speaks to them (and I don’t trust most of those who say God does). Or, perhaps it’s just that we’re like Samuel and we don’t know what we’re hearing. Perhaps if we consider the possibility that the Divine, Source, Universe, Energy (or whatever you’d like to call that Something More), can communicate with us we’d do things a little differently.

Perhaps we’d stop more often just to listen for that still, soft voice.

Perhaps we’d see opportunities as potential paths offered by the Divine

Perhaps we’d be willing to be surprised, to end up somewhere we didn’t expect to be.

Perhaps we’d begin to expect the unexpected.

Rabbi Karen Kedar, in her book God Whispers, says, “The world of the spirit speaks to you in a hundred voices. Listen with the heartbeat of your soul.” I believe this is true. Here are some of the ways God speaks to us that we named in worship yesterday:

  • Dreams
  • Intuition
  • Other people
  • Scripture
  • Music
  • Coincidences
  • Synchronicity
  • Signs
  • Art
  • Poetry
  • Symbols

All of these involve paying attention as we walk through life. Most require that we stop for a little bit to listen, be still, reflect, meditate (I’d say prayer, but most of us think of prayer as us doing the talking and this is time for us to be quiet). I know some of you are thinking, yea, right, when do I have time to be quiet? How about turning off the radio in the car? Five minutes drinking your coffee in the morning? In the shower? Washing dishes? Shoveling snow? Mowing the lawn? Gardening? Walking? Petting the dog or cat? We have plenty of opportunities, we simply have to open to them.

Listening to God requires not only paying attention, but then following the energy, or getting in the flow. When I’m trying to determine how to preach about a certain scripture I can list three or four directions I could go, but only one of them will have an energy to it that I can follow. To try one of the other options means pulling my hair out trying to make it work.

But following the energy, or getting in the flow of the Divine is NOT a head thing… it is a feeling thing, a heart thing.

Following our intuition is pretty much the same thing. It’s a gut feeling. An impulse.

Mark Nepo, in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, says “To intuit means to look upon, to instruct from within… As such, intuition is a deep form of listening that when trusted can return us to the common, irrepressible element at the center of all life and to the Oneness of things that surrounds us…”

Are you aware when your intuition is nudging you? Have you ever discounted it and realized later that you should have listened? Have you ever had anyone try to discredit your intuition? Women’s intuition is often disparaged by those touting logic and reason.

I believe there are small ways our intuition speaks to us every day, and we follow or don’t follow without even knowing that there might have been results or consequences to our choice. Sometimes, we follow and it was glaringly obvious that something more was moving.

Author HeatherAsh Amara tells a story about running late for an appointment when she felt the strong urge to visit her neighbor. Her rational mind said, “You need to get going, there is no reason to visit Fred.” But something deeper kept saying, “Just walk next door, see how he is doing.”  After arguing with herself for a while, she decided to follow the pull to see her neighbor and called to let her client know she’d be a little late.

Fred had been going through some really difficult circumstances: the end of his marriage, the possibilitiy of having to leave the home he loved, his young son being miles away. When she walked up he looked up from cooking dinner, surprised to see her.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I just felt the urge to come see you… how are you?” she said as she plopped down into a chair.

He sat silent for a long time. “Well,” he said, “I was actually just cooking my last meal. I have decided to end my life.”

After a half hour or more of listening to his fears and anguish and being present to him, he said, “I can’t believe you came by. You are right, I don’t want to end it all. If you hadn’t come by I would have shot myself tonight. Thanks for being my angel.”

We need to pay attention to those nudges and gut feelings and jump into the flow of the universe to see what it has in store for us.

I also believe that the universe sends us signs and symbols to help us know when we’re on the right path or to help guide our path. I’ve had many, many of these experiences, but I want to share one that I heard recently from a seminary student. She thought her life path was youth ministry, but then things changed and she just wasn’t feeling it. Every night she went to bed asking God to show her what to do next. Strangely enough the word seminary kept showing up everywhere she went. Random people discussing seminary in her hearing. She didn’t make the connection, but kept asking God each night what she should do. Every day the word showed up. It wasn’t until she was in the bathroom at a grocery store and someone else in the bathroom said seminary that she finally gave in.

We interpret the signs. They may mean nothing to anyone else. That doesn’t matter.  But the chance of us seeing them is slim unless we’re paying attention and are open to them.


First of all, God is a loving energy that wants to bring us in line with our highest good, our most authentic self, our truest, most life-giving path.  It is not hateful, it does not cause harm (though your path may include letting go of some things or relationships that are unhealthy).

But what if we make a wrong turn? What if we misread the signs or ignore our intuition? Then we just go from there. I believe God uses what we give to God and helps us move from that point. There is no point in beating ourselves up. We learn what we need to learn and move forward.

Pay attention, maybe even be like Samuel and say, “Here I am God, I’m listening.” Follow your intuition, watch for the signs, go with the energy, for the spirit has amazing and unexpected places to take each of us.

Love & Light!



Path of Transformation

Each of the four Gospels give John the Baptist the prominent role as the forerunner of Jesus. These stories or texts tend to emphasize John’s call to repent and be baptized.

Today I want to re-frame what I believe is the traditional Christian understanding of the word repent.

I believe most Christians understand repent as penance for sins. Contrition. Feeling sorry (and meaning it). Making amends. Going to confession.

(For the full video version, click here.)

So, here’s a different take on it. In Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book, The First Christmas, they tell us that “the biblical meaning emphasizes change. “They explain:

“To repent is to turn to God. In the Old Testament, its meaning is shaped by the Jewish experience of exile: it means to return from exile to the place of God’s presence… To repent, to return, is to follow the way that leads out of our exile, separation, alienation, and estrangement to reconnection.

The New Testament meaning of the word… adds an additional nuance. In the New Testament, the root of the Greek word translated as “repent” means “to beyond the mind that you have,” to enter into a new mind-set, a new way of seeing. To repent means to begin seeing differently.”

When we work on these two things pieces of John the Baptist’s message – moving from separation (exile) to reconnection and going beyond the mind we have – I believe we are truly committing ourselves to a path of transformation.

RECONNECTIONtransformation sign

I invited you to take a moment for personal inventory. How is it with your soul right now? How much of the time do you feel connected to the Divine? 1%? 5%? 20%? Is your spiritual journey compartmentalized into Sunday mornings, or your walk through the woods? Do you actively engage your spiritual journey, or is church a box you check off each week and forget about after that?

I guarantee that we’ve all had times when we’ve felt more connected or less connected than others. It has to do with life situations, time, energy, desire, and conscious intention.

Lots of folks “self-exile” themselves from church because of things that happened or things that didn’t happen, or because none of it was making sense anymore, and then they decide to cut themselves off from God altogether. Or, sometimes folks just drift away from their spiritual journey and before they know it God and spirituality doesn’t have much place in their lives at all.

Wherever you are, I invite you to stay connected, connect more, or reconnect, and commit to you… commit to your spiritual path this year. Whatever that looks like for you.


Next, we need to commit to going beyond the mind we have.

We can go through life on auto-pilot moving through the minutes, hours, weeks and months of our lives without really putting much thought into our spirituality or our inner journeys. We can work, play with the kids or grandkids, play golf, play cards, make dinner, go out with friends, go shopping, take care of our parents and partners, and take care of our homes without ever thinking about our personal and/or spiritual growth.

In the book A Woman’s Journey to God, by Joan Borysenko, she talks about the Tibetan Buddhists philosophy that speaks of three kinds of mind. “The dull mind with no spiritual interest. The average mind content with dogma and blind faith. The inquiring mind that is curious and filled with doubt. ”

I love this idea. And I believe it is the inquiring mind always pulls us beyond the mind we have.

What are the things we can move beyond?

  • Beliefs
  • Preconceived notions
  • Expectations
  • Limitations
  • Behaviors
  • Reactions
  • Judgments
  • Routine
  • Habits

The inquiring mind calls us not to become too comfortable or complacent with how we think, what we do, how we react, or what experiences we open ourselves to.

Pema Chodron said, “The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”

We can’t repent – go beyond the mind we have – without opening our hearts and minds to new thoughts, ideas and experiences. We need to challenge ourselves, be curious, ask questions, and doubt until we find a truth that feels right in our hearts. And then we keep searching to grow even more.

What tools can we use to reconnect and start seeing the world differently?

  • Hang out with people who are also interested in this, who will push you or challenge you
  • Don’t take things personally… be curious about why people believe certain things
  • Constant self-reflection
  • Have one new experience each week… even if it is a new spiritual book, or driving down a road you’ve never been on, trying a food you’ve never had.
  • Keep learning

Take the Path of Transformation… seek to reconnect to the Divine, and adopt a mind of inquiry… the journey  will take us deeper into ourselves, into God and into life.

Love & Light!


Attending the Path

The onset of a brand new year entices us to plot and plan and make New Year’s resolutions. We set our goals, map our paths, and plot the roads we want to take to accomplish our wants, wishes and requirements for 2018. Most of us have probably scheduled vacations, thought about how to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates. Many of us may have even made goals for work, exercise, diet, health, volunteering, reading, going to church, and so on.

(For the full video version, click here.)

Perhaps you’ve even made a list. For some of us it is important to cross something off a list to feel like we’ve accomplished something. I’ve been known to put something that I’ve already done on a list just so I can check it off! We are a very goal-oriented, success-driven society, after all.

Sometimes I think we may get too caught up in getting where we want to gojourney that we miss the adventure along the way. And we forget that there really isn’t a final destination. There is no place to ultimately say, “I have arrived!” Even once the magi found the baby Jesus, they had to continue on their journey home by another route, amassing more stories and having more experiences.

I wonder if we could let go a bit of being so goal-oriented or destination-oriented, could we then allow ourselves the experience of the journey itself?

Last summer I took a group to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for a mission trip. I had the route, hotel, and timing pretty well planned to arrive at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. Turns out we actually had a few extra hours to kill Saturday morning so we didn’t arrive too early. And, sure we could have slept in, but we were in Mitchell, South Dakota, the home of the Corn Palace! Certainly the youth who were with us needed to experience this wonder. So, we spent an amusing couple of hours exploring this phenomenon and allowing ourselves a spontaneous experience on the journey.

Life is the same way. We’re programmed to want to get from point A to point B as directly and quickly as possible. Then life happens. We have health issues, job loss, a baby, a divorce, a death, an opportunity, a move, a change in life goals. The path just isn’t straight, no matter how much we may want it to be. Working with the metaphor, there are mandatory rest stops, road construction and detours, flat tires and tourist attractions. Occasionally we get lost and lose our way. We like to convince ourselves that these things are all “bad.” But perhaps they just “are.” Perhaps they just are part of the journey; places we can find God in awe, in compassion, in hope, in others and in our own perseverance and resilience. Once we shift our mindset we can open ourselves to the Spirit who helps us to learn and grow through all these wonderful opportunities.

The path, the search, the journey is its own reward. If you want to plan and map and make lists, great. But do so a little more loosely. Build in some flexibility and spontaneity. Open to the winds of the Spirit, watch for potentials and opportunities and strive to always, whatever happens, engage the moment life has presented you with.

Many blessings on your adventures this coming year.

Love & Light!


Gifts of the Heart

Often we think of the birth of Jesus as the birth of something new coming merry christmasinto our world or our lives, but what if it is not necessarily the creation of something new, but the celebration of the spirit that awakens in us what we already have?

Hope, love, joy and peace all existed before the birth of Jesus.

God’s presence was with humanity before the birth of Jesus.

Light existed in the midst of darkness.

(For the full video version, click here.)

We have friends who are moving soon and they’ve been cleaning out 20 years of living in one house. As she’s gone through the attic and hidey-holes under the stairs, she talks about how (in amongst the crap that collects) she has found precious things she hasn’t seen in years and had forgotten about. There is such surprise and joy and gratitude in that.

Maybe Christmas is like that. Perhaps we celebrate Christmas (often the same way every year) to try and rediscover that which we already have deep inside ourselves.

I think about the ways we lose sight of those familiar Christmas-time gifts: love, joy, hope and peace…

We lose sight of love in the midst of family conflicts or drama, or maybe we just lose sight of love because we fall into a routine or a rut. Or maybe we’ve lost a loved one, or had a break up. But Christmas reminds us of the unconditional love of the Divine that never leaves us. And the holiday draws that same love out in us, makes us want to share it not only with those we love, but often with those less fortunate, or maybe just with the person you’re chit-chatting with in the grocery line.

We lose sight of joy in the uncertainty of life, and get bogged down in fear or worry. Or sometimes (we hate to admit it) maybe life is good, but we’re waiting for the other shoe to fall and so don’t allow ourselves to fully experience the full extent of the joy. We focus more on a glass half empty than half full. Christmas calls us to sing forth our joy like the angels, to smile at the children, to know a depth of joy that dwells deep, deep within our souls.

Sadly, it is too easy to lose sight of hope in a world ravaged by drugs, human trafficking, poverty, the destruction of natural resources, hatred and violence. And sometimes life knocks us down one too many times in a row and we feel a deep despair devoid of hope.  Christmas reminds us that we are not alone, that there is something bigger moving in the world. Christmas reminds us that with each child hope is born again… and that includes each of us… we can all be a light of hope to the world.

And we lose sight of peace… not just peace between countries and people, but inner peace. We’ve forgotten how to slow down, to turn off our phones and televisions and computers, to quiet our minds and rest in gentleness of the moment, and open to a deeper inner peace. Christmas Eve, with its dimmed lights, beautiful music, and the sacred energy that fills the air, helps us touch once again that peace that the world cannot give.

Which of these gifts of the heart do you need to find again? What do you need to remember? What have you taken for granted that you need to see clearly and feel gratitude for again? What have you forgotten even existed and given up on?

May the love, joy, hope and peace of the Spirit fill you not only this Christmas time, but in the many days to come.

Love & Light!


Out of the box

I must admit to a certain guilt
about stuffing the Holy Family into a box
In the aftermath of Christmas.
It’s frankly a time of personal triumph when,
each Advent’s eve, I free them (and the others)
from a year’s imprisonment
boxed in the dark of our basement.
(excerpt from Ann Weems’ poem, “Boxed”)

I admit I feel exactly like this poem… I feel a certain guilt when Christmas is over and the Holy Family, animals, shepherds, angels and magi get stuffed back in a box. It’s like saying, “OK, we’re done with you, in you go, time for us to move on.”

It’s been even worse the last few years because we haven’t had room to put up a nativity at all. Now that we’re in a bigger home, I can hardly wait to get them out again, but I’m waiting until the kids are home from college and we can do it together (I like to hang on to the illusion that they still care about that ritual).

The scripture about Mary being visited by the angel made me think about how our hearts need to be opened up to receive the Spirit of God. And I started wondering, if we could somehow release the characters of the nativity at Christmas time, might they somehow, in turn, release something in us that we forget about the rest of the year. What if we allowed the nativity to speak to us about their stories? What messages might they have for us?

This is a difficult sermon to summarize because what we did was to “unpack” our own nativity. nativityThere were six members of the congregation who agreed to help us see the story of Jesus’ birth in a new light by taking on one of the characters of the nativity and sharing their story. It was done mostly impromptu and was sometimes hilarious, sometimes somber and sometimes enlightening. The full video version can be watched by clicking here.

Our shepherd, Billy, spoke of being claustrophobic and asked to not be stuffed back in the box after Christmas was over. He shared how he was shocked by the angel, but trusted enough to go looking for the baby, which he knew was the right one because he could feel it in his heart. He shared the wonder and awe that he felt that night, and wanted us to feel that same wonder and awe.

The angel, who had some long convoluted name that I still can’t remember, was just bubbling over with excitement. It seems like she really loves her job spreading the good news, flitting around the world and singing in the sky. She hoped each of us would feel the same joy that filled her that night.

Sher-r-r-man the black sheep, admitted that he life wasn’t always easy because people assumed he was bad just because of his color. But when he saw the little baby named Jesus, he felt an unconditional love. He wanted to give love back to the child and so offered to help keep the baby warm. Sher-r-r-man hoped that we could all feel that unconditional love and learn to return it.

The donkey, Jack-lyn, traveled days with pregnant Mary on her back, and despite the long, boring journey, she was very patient and willing to help. She encouraged all of us to have the same patience and willingness to help people in need.

Poor Joseph shared with us some very personal struggles. He had a terrible condition which meant that no headdress would ever fit him right, he didn’t get married until later in life because he felt like no one ever really wanted him. When he was betrothed to Mary, he hoped that life would start to turn around and he’d get to be like all the other men with wives and children. But then he found out that Mary was pregnant, and it just wasn’t going to be easy for him again. But Mary and his faith helped to see him through. Joseph told us that if he could have faith, we could, too.

Mary talked about the fear she felt when the angel came to her. How would she explain this to her parents and her new husband? Why would God disgrace her like this? Eventually she decided to trust God and to see it through, but it took an extreme amount of courage. She told us that if she could have courage, so could we.

The baby Jesus obviously couldn’t speak, but even without words his message was one of hope. In fact, every child’s birth calls us to hope in the future and the myriad of possibilities that new life opens up. The world didn’t need anything more amazing to change the course of history than for a child to be born.

Perhaps, if we allow ourselves, we too could feel the immense hope the child Jesus brought. Because we, too, are a people and a time steeped in darkness and despair. We need that hope to get us through… hope that we aren’t alone, hope that there will be better days ahead, hope that someday we will know peace in the world.

Don’t forget the characters of the nativity and their messages. Instead of just going through the motions of presents and gatherings and church, let’s allow our souls to go deeper. Let us open our hearts with wonder and awe, joy, unconditional love, patience and helpfulness, faith, courage and hope.

Love & Light!


Feeling Grinchy?

In her book Hallelujah, Anyway, Anne Lamott talks a bit about her struggle with alcoholism and shares that she converted to Christianity while she was drunk, at a tiny church led by a pastor who apparently looked a lot like singer Marvin Gaye (which was part of the reason she kept going back). Anyway, a year later and a few months sober, she was ready to be baptized. But then called her pastor the morning of her baptism to tell him that “regrettably, she’d have to cancel the baptism, as she was currently too damaged and foul for words. She promised to call him when she got a bit better. He told her to get her butt over to the church, that she wasn’t going to heal sitting alone on her 10 x 12 foot houseboat. He said she didn’t have to get it together before she could be included and, in fact, couldn’t get it together without experiencing inclusion.” So her friend picked her up, and she was baptized.

(For the full video version, click here.)

There seems to be this misnomer that when we’re feeling “too damaged and foul for words” we shouldn’t be anywhere near the church, that perhaps we’re not good enough for God… or at least not good enough for all the “really good people” who are there (which is also false as I’ve never met anyone without skeletons in their closets and scars on their soul).

Ann Weems has a wonderful poem entitled “Toward the Light” that suggests that when we’re feeling “too damaged and foul for words” is when we run. As far from God and others as we can get. We don’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone, and if we could possibly get away from ourselves as well, we would. Here’s her poem:

Too often our answer to the darkness
is not running toward Bethlehem but running away.
We ought to know by now that we can’t see where we’re going in the dark.
Running away is rampant…
separation is stylish: separation from mates, from friends, from self.
Run and tranquilize, don’t talk about it, avoid.
Run away and join the army of those who have already run away.
When are we going to learn that Christmas Peace
comes only when we turn and face the darkness?
Only then will we be able to see the Light of the World.

Despite the standard greeting of Merry Christmas, many folks just don’t feel merry, and instead fall into that category of wanting to run and hide until the holiday is over.

There are many things that can take our “merry” away from us:

  • Grief over loved ones gone
  • The state of the world juxtaposed with the peace we hope for at Christmas
  • Challenging families
  • Loss of job, or lack of money
  • Health concerns
  • Empty nest
  • Lack of sunshine
  • loneliness

It may be enough to make us feel like the Grinch, or Scrooge, or want to break into a chorus ofGrinch “Blue Christmas.” In the midst of this season of celebration and joy, it isn’t unusual to also feel a deep well of pain, sorrow, grief and loss.

The truth is we can’t escape our own darkness, nor can we begin to heal while we’re running from it. Ann Lamott’s pastor was right, sulking on her tiny houseboat wasn’t going to fix, heal or help her. She needed to feel loved and included for that. She needed to turn into her own darkness to see the tiny glimmer of light we call God. And so do we…

This glimmer of light in the darkness is the point of Christmas… the trees and tinsel, presents and cookies are all great, but not really the point.  Those are merely a shiny, shallow covering for the depth of the meaning and magic of Christmas. The real point is that people saw Jesus as the revelation of a loving, compassionate, peaceful God who cared for all people, and perhaps especially for those who were hurting, oppressed and poor.

As Zechariah says in his prophetic proclamation:

“Blessed are you, the Most High God of Israel – for you have visited and redeemed your people.
You have raised up a mighty savior for us of the house of David…
Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

God raised up a savior – which had nothing to do with supposedly saving people from their sins, and everything to do with personal and social transformation.  Jesus showed the way to a deeper spiritual peace within oneself that would then hopefully manifest outwardly in more harmony, compassion, love and justice.

Megan McKenna tells a story about poet Rainer Maria Rilke. When he lived in Paris he used to take a walk every afternoon, and daily he passed by an old lady begging along the footpath. The elderly lady sat there stoically and silently and showed no sign of gratitude for the alms the passersby gave her.

One day, the poet was strolling along with a young lady friend, and much to her astonishment he gave the elderly lady no alms. She wondered why. He said in answer to the question he could fee, “A person must give something to her heart and not to her hand.”

On one of the next days Rilke appeared with a small, half-opened rose in his hand. Naturally , the young lady thought it was for her. How thoughtful of him! But, no, he laid the rose in the hand of the beggar lady.

And then something wonderful happened. The beggar lady stood up, reached out, and took Rilke’s hand and kissed it. She clutched the rose to her heart and disappeared. She stayed away for a whole week. And then she came back and sat there as lifeless and cold as before. “What do you think she lived on during that time?” Asked Rilke’s young companion.

“On the rose,” he answered.

Christmas is like the gift of a rose, it is a spiritual gift that touches the heart with love, joy, peace and hope. It is light in the darkness. Christmas is for all of us no matter whether you are happy and on top of the world, or whether you are “broken and too foul for words.”

Turn into the darkness and find the light within.

Advent blessings,



Zechariah’s Lessons

Ann Weems’ poem, “To Listen, To Look” begins like this:

Is it all sewn up – my life?
Is it at this point so predictable,
so orderly,
so neat
so arranged,
so right,
that I don’t have time or space
for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings
or running to stables to see a baby?

The Gospel of Luke opens with the story of Zechariah. We don’t hear too much about Zechariah, but given that he was the father of John the Baptist and (story goes) that there was some Divine intervention in John’s conception, he really is a pretty important (or at least an interesting) guy.

Zechariah strikes me as a pretty ”life-sewn-up” kind of guy – in Ann Weems’ words – predictable, orderly, arranged, right. (I’d personally add rigid and set in his ways. but I hate to judge a book by its priestly cover.) Zechariah was born into the Jewish priestly class, so his role in life was determined from the get go. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were worthy in the sight of God, which meant that they “scrupulously observed the commandments and observances.” Clearly he was a faithful servant of God, devoted and diligent in his service in the Temple.

It seems that the couple’s only flaw, or failing, was that they apparently couldn’t have kids, and that brought disgrace upon them. Now they are up in years and past the age of being able to conceive (kind of like the story of Abraham and Sarah).

Anyway, given all of this, it’s not exactly surprising that Zechariah doesn’t just go with the flow when an angel appears to him in the Temple as he’s offering incense to God.zechariah

Frankly, it seems to me like a great place to have a vision or an encounter with an angel, right there in the sacred space of the Temple, but the scripture says Zechariah “was deeply disturbed” and “overcome with fear.”  And then when he gets great news: “your wife is going to have a baby, and you’ll name him John, and he’ll be great like the prophet Elijah, and will bring people back to God and prepare them for the coming of God!” he is less than enthused. In fact, his skeptical response is, “How can I be sure of this? I’m old and my wife is old.”

Now, it’s here that I figure the angel must’ve had a long day and was all out of nice. “Seriously?” the angel basically says, “You’re questioning me? The angel Gabriel, who stands before God? I was sent to bring you this good news, but tell you what… why don’t you just take some time to think about it. Say about nine months… in silence, because I’m going to make you mute.”

This whole encounter raises two questions for me:

  1. Do we make room for angels? For spontaneity? For surprises? For the in-breaking of the Divine?
  2. Can we shift our perspectives and change our response?

Think about your life. How “sewn-up” is it? How predictable? Are we too tied to our habits, behaviors, and thinking, that we no longer have eyes to see or ears to hear the Divine?

When you’re on a trip, do you plan every step, or do you make room for following where the spirit leads? Can you take a detour? Can you make an unexpected stop because it looks interesting? Or do you need to stick to the plan? Do you ever drive a different way to church or sit in a different seat? Do you always go out to the same place to eat and order the same thing? Or can you be spontaneous?

I’m pretty good with spontaneous shopping… I can come out of a store with all kinds of things that weren’t on my list! But am I paying attention to the spirit? Am I listening for the rustle of angel’s wings? Am I watching for the birth of hope in my life? Am I willing to follow a dream or a song? If I’d been with the shepherds, would I have dared to follow the unbelievable and left my flock to go look for a baby in a manger?

And if my answer – our answer –  to those questions is “no” because our lives follows a specific routine that we don’t break, we don’t do things without careful planning, or because we don’t follow whimsical dreams and ideas that pop into our head, and we better not be having visions of angels, because clearly that means we’re losing our minds… well, then, we have to wonder what we might all be missing.

Are we missing opportunities?

Are we missing the blessings and miracles around us?

Are we missing a chance to be filled with wonder and awe?

Are we missing God moving right here in our midst?

In the story of Zechariah he could actually see and hear the angel, but still he didn’t trust him… there wasn’t room in his paradigm for a heavenly visitor. And I truly can’t say as I blame him.

When he’s told that he and his old wife are going to have a baby and he responds, “How will I know that this is so?” do we blame him? Nope. We’re right there with him. We don’t want promises, we want guarantees!

When the unexpected happens in our lives, when we’re faced with opportunity or change, we’d like some guarantees. Is this new job really the right job? How will I know that this is so? Or the relationship you’re in that feels like the right relationship, but how will I know that this is so? Could we have some guarantees please?

Well, there just aren’t a lot of guarantees in life… except death and taxes, right?

So, what could Zechariah have said to the angel instead? What might be a better response to the unexpected, to the unknown? How about, “Will you (my guides, god, goddess, Divine Essence, Higher Power, Spirit) be with me along the way?” We know the answer before asking, – “Of course, you are never alone” – but somehow it feels better to voice it.

This Advent, perhaps we can make room for angels, and new possibilities, and for the unexpected. Perhaps instead of asking the Divine for guarantees about life, we can simply ask for companionship and strength along the way.

Love & Light!


I want it to be different

Listen to parts of Ann Weems’ poem “This Year Will Be Different”:

Who among us does not have dreams that this year will be different?
Who among us does not intend to go peacefully, leisurely, carefully toward Bethlehem,
for who among us likes to cope with the commercialism of Christmas
which lures us to tinsel not only the tree but also our hearts?
Who among us intends to get caught up in tearing around and wearing down?
Who among us does not long for:
gifts that give love?
shopping in serenity?
cards and presents sent off early?
long evenings by the fireside with those we love?…
This year we intent to follow the Star instead of the crowd.
But, of course, we always do intend the best.

She nails it for me. I’m right there with her. Or is it just me? Am I the adventonly one to want Advent and the journey toward Christmas to be different? Stress-less, hassle free, and peace among all people (especially families). More about people than presents, Jesus than tinsel, anticipation than anxiety.

My problem is that I want it all. I want to tend to my spirit AND my Christmas tree. I love people and giving presents (especially the perfect ones). I want to eat all the cookies and still lose 5 pounds. Basically, I want things to be different, but I don’t want to change what I’m doing. A sure sign of insanity, I know. But I think I come by it honestly. I think it is simply a human trait.

Take a look at part of the Isaiah passage (11:1-4a, 6, 9) we read in conjunction with this poem:

The wolf will dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the lion cub will graze together,
And a little child will lead them.
There will be no harm, no destruction
Anywhere in my holy mountain,
For as water fills the sea,
So the land will be filled with knowledge of Yahweh.

Apparently we’ve always wanted things to be different… perfect even… but things haven’t changed much socially and politically in the last 2,000 years.

I wonder, was the prophet Isaiah simply dreaming when he foresaw a new leader from the line of Jesse who would make everything perfect?  They would bring a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and reverence for God. Suddenly people would delight in serving God, wouldn’t judge others by their appearances, or make decisions without the facts. Poor people would be treated fairly and with justice. And then everyone and everything that was normally pitted against each other would live in harmony. There would be no harm or destruction because all would be filled with the knowledge of God. Wow. How amazing would that be?

By the way – the reference to the little child leading them was not originally about any specific child. It was simply a symbolic image, a pastoral setting where a young child led all the animals like a shepherd. We hear this passage every year at this time because it was the hope that the child Jesus would usher in this era of peace. Surely with this child things would be different! Jesus didn’t magically bring those things, but we still hope he will. We don’t only hope our personal lives will be filled with harmony and peace, we want that for the world, too. We want this year to be different for everyone.

So, this brings us back to our dilemma: we want things to be different, but we don’t necessarily want to change. We want the world to be more peaceful, but we’re irritated beyond belief at the person in front of us driving 5 mph under the speed limit. We haven’t figured out how to be peaceful inside ourselves… so how can we bring peace to the world?

It’s (painfully) clear to me that if we really want something to be different, whether it is a big something or a little something, we need to actively work to make it different. I’ve been reading a book that reminded me of this, and offers one way to try to move forward so that perhaps this year might really be different.

The book suggests that if not getting what we want causes us to suffer, then we know we are too attached to the outcome. We are not fully aligning with life, but to our view of how things are “supposed” to be. It is the difference between aligning with our preferences and our ego, or aligning with the flow of life. Becoming clear with ourselves about the difference takes time, attention and energy. The process though is simple, it entails answering three questions:

What do we want? What is reality? Taking that into account, what do we REALLY want?

First we determine what our preference is, what we want in any given situation. Then we examine the reality of the situation. Finally, we ask ourselves what we really want by going beyond the surface of the desire to the depths of our yearning. Then determine if we can give that quality to ourselves.

For example, I want a Christmas day with my kids.

The reality is that my kids are with me on Christmas Eve (which I also wouldn’t change), and then they head to Chicago to be with their dad’s family. The reality also is that we spend at least part of Christmas day with my wife’s family… which is not particularly stress-free, but important to her.

If I were too attached to what I wanted, it would make me miserable. Instead, aligning to the flow of life means accepting that Christmas is what it is. Then I ask myself again what I really want. Well, I want to feel the spirit of Christmas – joy, love, and laughter, being with people I care about, enjoying a nice meal and wallowing in the end of a busy season with a nice glass of red wine.

This year offered a new solution. Turns out our friends and neighbors across the street will also not be spending Christmas day with kids (as was hoped) so that night we’ll make their traditional Christmas meal and enjoy some wine, friendship, and cribbage. And I will get what my spirit yearns for, maybe not in the exact form I hoped for, but that piece has to be let go.

Maybe change isn’t so bad after all. Maybe this year can be different.

Love & Light!


Simply Following Jesus

In our third week of delving into the medieval mystics, we will explore the life, stories and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi.

Francis was born in 1182 in Assisi, Italy. Europe and the Muslim world had already endured two crusades. The third crusade began when Francis was a boy, and the fourth when he was twenty-one. Despite the atmosphere of war, as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis grew up fairly carefree, almost a playboy and party-er. Assisi itself joined in an ongoing war with Perugia, a neighboring city. Exuberantly, Francis rode off to fight, but was quickly taken prisoner and held for ransom. While in prison, Francis contracted malaria and began to reflect inward on the purpose of his life.

(For the full video version, click here.)

After a year his ransom was finally paid and Francis came out of prison beaten down, disillusioned, and feeling there must be something more than all this cruelty and aggression. It was during this time that Francis wandered into a little run down church and heard a voice saying, “Francis, repair my house.” With a purpose now before him, Francis was transformed.

However, rehabbing the little church would be a challenge with no money. Not to be deterred, Francis simply stole goods from his father and sold them to get the money for materials. When he was caught, his father called a town meeting, and I assume planned to make an example of him and shame him into shaping up. Instead Francis took off  all his rich clothing, tossed them back to his father, and claimed that his only father was God. Francis then pledged himself in service to God and the church. He donned the rough clothes of the beggar and proceeded to live a life of voluntary poverty.

One day when he was out walking on the plains below Assisi, he came across some lepers… people the “old Francis” would have given a wide berth while plugging his nose at the stench of their disease. Now, however, Francis approached them, touched them, and offered them comfort and compassion.

Francis began to live the Gospel of Jesus as he knew it. He lived in poverty, had no possessions or place to lay his head, showed love and kindness to all people, lived with deep compassion, and preached about peace and the love of God for all. It wasn’t long before others were attracted to the monumental change in him and his way of life and began to follow him.

Though Francis resisted priesthood, perhaps because that would identify himself with a higher class of people, he had such a following that he did finally seek permission from Pope Innocent to preach and to establish an order based on living the Gospel.

I think I’ve always sort of thought of St. Francis as a fluffy saint who loved animals and preached to the birds. Yes, he is said to have had an inexhaustible tenderness about him, but his message wasn’t necessarily warm and fuzzy. His message called people to do something hard… be like Jesus. Love one another and do something about improving the world.

Francis preached peace in the midst of war.

He preached benevolence and God’s love for all in opposition to those who preached about duty, sacrifice and killing the infidel.

He is the only Christian man ever known to attempt two or three trips to dialogue with the “enemy” during the Crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land. Francis even went so far as telling the Christians they were wrong for crusading and persecuting these children of God. During one trip he even met with the Muslim Sultan of Egypt, who wanted peace as much as he did. They had great discussions about prayer and theology and Francis returned home having grown in his spirituality.

Francis lived in simplicity because he understood that having things tended to lead to greed and defending those things. Once you have things you worry about losing your things, and you want more things, you may even covet your neighbors’ things.

No, we’re not like Francis, it is truly a Divine calling to voluntarily live in poverty. But perhaps we could take a small step back and take a look at how our culture has twisted Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the one holiday that isn’t about getting stuff (gluttony, maybe, but not stuff). It’s about the simple gifts of harvest, abundance, sharing, family, relationships. There is no expectation of receiving gifts, except the gifts of the earth – food for our tables. The whole goal is to feel gratitude.

The essential goodness in all that is now being overshadowed by football and commercialism. In fact, now we have pre-Black Friday sales, and Black Thursday sales. And heaven forbid we let retail folks get a good night’s sleep… instead we’ll start opening the stores at midnight on Thursday. Then we’ll have Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday! If you have anything left by Giving Tuesday, we can then give a little to our favorite charity. When will it stop?

Poor Francis would’ve had a heart attack. What happens to our souls in the midst of it all?

A sermon about Francis would be lacking without the story of the birds…Francis 1

As time went on, more and more people were attracted to his order, and it lost more and more of his original vision. Francis struggled with whether to retire entirely and devote himself to prayer, or to continue traveling and preaching. To answer this question, he sought the counsel of some of his trusted friends and colleagues, Brother Sylvester and Sister Clare. The answer came quickly: yes, God wanted Francis to continue preaching. Without delay, Francis took to the roads. As he is walking, he comes upon a very large flock of birds and rushes to greet them as if they could understand him.

St. Bonaventure writes, “He went right up to them and solicitously urged them to listen to the word of God, saying,  ‘Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part.’…The birds showed their joy in a remarkable fashion: They began to stretch their necks, extend their wings, open their beaks and gaze at him attentively.

“He went through their midst with amazing fervor of spirit, brushing against them with his tunic. Yet none of them moved from the spot until the man of God made the sign of the cross and gave them permission to leave; then they all flew away together. His companions waiting on the road saw all these things. When he returned to them, that pure and simple man began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before.”

Some sources say that from that day on Francis made sure to preach to all the animals and entreat them to praise and love the creator.

As with any of us, Francis’ spirituality continued to change and grow. The more he came to understand the boundlessness of God’s love, the more he recognized that it wasn’t just about loving humans, but about loving all creatures.

As we quickly approach the Advent season, Francis is a good segue as he had a particular fondness for Christmas.  For him the Word of God not only became a tiny child entering the human family, but Jesus entered the whole family of creation, becoming one with everything.

So, as Jack Wintz writes, “Francis had a keen sense that all creatures—not just humans—must be included in the celebration of Christmas.” There are stories about how Francis wanted  “the emperor to ask all citizens to scatter grain along the roads on Christmas Day so that the birds and other animals would have plenty to eat. Walls, too, should be rubbed with food, Francis said, and the beasts in the stable should receive a bounteous meal on Christmas Day. He believed that all creatures had a right to participate in the celebration of Christmas.”

Living in poverty and pushing his body too hard took its toll on Francis. He became badly malnourished and contracted leprosy and malaria. He spent four years on a straw bed. During those four years 3,000 men joined the order.

But as the order grew it became divided between those who wanted to live Francis’ original vision of poverty, simplicity and service, and those who wanted a more traditional monastic life. Eventually Francis resigned and he experienced his own dark night of the soul during which he became very ill again. It was during this time that it is said he received the stigmata – the wounds of Jesus – as a result of living his life so like Jesus.

It was on his deathbed that he dictated his famous poem, “Canticle of the Creatures” where he sang praises to Brother Sun and Sister Moon, to Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire and Sister Mother Earth, and finally Sister Death.

There are many lessons we could take from Francis:

  • Oneness of all creation and God’s love for all of creation
  • Living simply and tenderly
  • Embracing the outcast
  • Accepting other ideas and understandings of the Divine
  • Seeing God everywhere
  • Accepting death as a sister
  • Living peacefully without greed or violence
  • Being grateful
  • Be a servant

We probably won’t become another Francis, but perhaps his example will prompt us to grow spiritually in one of those ways, to make even a small change to the way we live or behave.

Love & Light!


Dark Night of the Soul

In our second week of delving into the medieval mystics, we find ourselves with John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul.”

Juan de Yepes was born into extreme poverty in 1542 in Fontiveros, Spain. When his father died he moved with his mother to Medina de Campo where he had access to some of the finest education at the time, first as an orderly at a plague hospital where he was permitted to study at the new Jesuit school, and then at the university of Salamanca as a young Carmelite student. He was ordained in 1567.

Truly, John was an introvert, a scholar and a poet, but Teresa of Avila saw St. John of the Crosssomething great in him and hitched him to her cause of reforming the Carmelite order, which had been founded on the ideals of a simple life spent in solitude and prayer, but that vision had all but died. At the time there were some 200 nuns in the convent, the wealthiest of those had suites of rooms that they shared with relatives and servants. Teresa decided to start a new convent closer to the original idea, but faced huge opposition. She pressed on anyway, but knew her reform would fail unless it involved monks as well. Though John was 27 years her junior (and under 5 feet tall, not that that means anything) he became her apprentice and they founded a new reformed Carmelite order for men. Three years later John’s superiors told him to quit. He refused, thus becoming an outlaw in his own order.

Shortly after, John was abducted, bound and blindfolded and taken to a monastery over 80 miles away where they tried to force him to renounce his work. He refused and was beaten and thrown into the monastery prison where he survived on bread and water. He was not allowed to bathe, change his clothes, or leave his cell, except for beatings. After two months he was placed in solitary confinement where the only light came through a slit in the prison wall. There he began to compose his greatest works, including the poem “The Dark Night of the Soul,” first by memorizing the words it the dark and then writing them down when he was finally given paper and ink. He escaped after 9 months.

(For the full video version, click here.)

John has been called the greatest psychologist in the history of mysticism. While his theology is quite varied, he is best known for his exploration of the “dark night.” This concept of the “dark night of the soul” has become common terminology over the centuries, but few people know where it originated.

When people hear that he wrote dark night while in prison, they assume that it is a memoir about the worst part of his life. Perhaps we expect John to tell us how awful it was and how his faith got him through it. But it is more accurately thought of as a love story between the lover and the Beloved. It requires the lover (aka “soul”) to completely let go of everything and enter into the unknown darkness to have a true encounter with the Beloved (aka “God”).

In the commentaries he wrote on his own poem, John uses the “dark night” to refer primarily to the critical moments of transition in the stages of spiritual growth. For our purposes, it is sufficient, as scholars Robin Maas and Gabriel O’Donnell say, “to speak of the “dark night” in terms of human “limit-experiences”… times when we’ve reached a point in our lives and in our prayer when everything seems to fall apart. We feel lost, confused, frustrated, and abandoned by God and our friends. We may be painfully aware of how good we used to have it. Often this happens when our comfortable religion breaks down in the face of lives struggles and questions. Perhaps God no longer seems real. Perhaps our faith now seems meaningless.”

How do you know if you’re really in a dark night? 

If the dark night is due to illness, lukewarmness, or a recent “sin” then John says returning to health or “sincere Christian living” will take care of it. Depression can also resemble a dark night, except that it can be treated with medication or therapy. A true dark night, which may, or may not, be triggered by traumas in our lives is an intense and pervasive inner anguish and complete disorientation to everything – self, God and the world.

Well known preacher and theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, talks about experiencing the dark night (or cloudy night) of the soul when her “reliable ideas about God began to slip away.” The slipping began when the language of faith – sin, salvation, repentance, grace – lost meaning. She discovered that slowly, over the years, she had not lost faith, but had lost faith in a system that given her words, doctrine, rituals and practices that would supposedly be all she needed to understand, teach and share God. But, the way she had been taught to be Christian didn’t work anymore, and she found herself lost in that dark night.

John of the Cross has a very interesting take on God’s part in this dark night. When it is experienced, it feels as if God has abandoned us, as the Psalmist cries out in Psalm 22:1 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But in reality, John says, God is closer than God has ever been. The dark night is a time of releasing (purging) and illuminating.

Once again language falls short of explaining the ineffable, so John describes this experience metaphorically.

  • One way to look at it is as if we were a cave dweller emerging into the bright sunshine. The brilliant light is actually painful to look upon. There is only one way to regain one’s sight and that is to continue to spend time in that bright light, giving the eyes time to adjust, no matter how painful it might be.
  • The second metaphor John uses is that of a log becoming fire. He explains that what happens inwardly in the dark night of the soul is that as the love of God penetrates deeper and deeper into our being we are slowly consumed and engulfed, eventually becoming the fire itself. The smoke and steam, and perhaps worms and bugs, seen exiting the log as it begins to burn are the things of our lives that need to be released, let go of, before transformation can take place. These things might include our belief structures, ideologies, expectations, perfection, mistakes, guilt, shame, material things, fear, grudges and more. Once all of those things are let go, one can see the light within oneself and is transformed.

Both of these processes are painful. Walking into such brilliant light that our own flaws, failings and weaknesses seem to stand out in stark contrast, and the process of having to examine and release all of these flaws, failings and weaknesses as we watch them turn to steam and disappear. Our old religion, creeds and doctrine, and images of God no longer fit in comparison to the reality found in the darkness. We are stripped of our illusions and false securities. We feel like we are losing our very selves.

Spiritual director and Jesuit priest, Thomas Greene, in his book When the Well Runs Dry recalled a “very prayerful sister telling [him] of her experience: God seemed so far away and so uninterested in her that she finally said to [him]: “All right! If you don’t care, then neither do I!” And she tried to avoid prayer and go her own way, even to “sin”! But she was equally miserable.” She was very surprised when Thomas told her that her experience was probably “a sign something good and deep was happening!”

Brown Taylor interprets John the Cross as saying,

“the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God. All of these are substitutes for God.”

In the same way the dark night frees us from our ideas about ourselves, the stories we tell about ourselves, the fears we have about life, the things we’ve bought into or rail against, our brokenness, our failures, our successes. All of these are substitutes for our authentic selves.

Just thinking about it can make me want to run. Escape sounds like a great idea, if only it were possible. Once the process begins, there is really no easy way out, one must go through. But what we are doing in this process of releasing and letting go is making room for something or someone greater and more mysterious. If we can stay in the place when we feel and see God least, and let the night do its work, we will gradually discover the Divine already dwelling within our hearts.

John’s advice is to “learn to let go, to walk forward in simple trust, [then] the turmoil will eventually give way to a profound and unshakable union with God that no further suffering can fundamentally disturb.”

God has not deserted us in the darkness, God is not punishing us or forsaking us. God is simply a creative force working in a way that is so deep it is beyond our senses. For John it was “God teaching the soul secretly and instructing it in the perfection of love without its doing anything or understanding how this happens.”