Over the next few weeks we’ll be revisiting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. There is a lifetime of material in this opening sermon / teaching of his from Matthew, so there is plenty to reflect on no matter how many times we’ve heard these lessons. It’s focus is how we can live with the compassion and wisdom of Jesus. Not just think about how to live, but how we can put habits into place to actually live compassion.
It’s my observation – and of course I’m not alone in this – many of us often agitated and anxious about what’s happening in both our personal lives as well as the wider world; and that this anxiety and reactivity can easily prevent us from living as our best selves. In a climate where rhetoric is so charged, and so hurtful, and so violent, the words of Jesus keep calling us back to what it means to be blessed and to be a blessing for others.
It’s important to acknowledge at the outset that many of us take comfort in this community of faith because it provides a safe zone in a very troubling world. Whether it is our weekly time in worship, our opportunities to go on retreat together, or in the many informal ways we interact and support each other; we often experience this community as a calm center in the world’s violent storms.
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. (Matthew 5 – The Message)
In this context, it is important to reflect on how we are doing, and what we can do in the future to find the sweet spot of being a blessing in an anxious world.
Paul Evans and I led a session on these themes last weekend at our all-church retreat up at Pilgrim Center. About 40 adults began a morning session visual ‘post it parking lot’ we wrote out those things that are impacting us – many of them public, some personal. They included many versions of the following:
Some of the personal things included
Pressure to be a perfect mother
The passing of loved ones
Even ‘parking’ those issues, concerns and wonderings felt like an act of care. As The Message version of our Beatitudes states: “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. (The Message)
Paying attention to how these things are impacting us, however, is part of a healthy spiritual practice. Tony Schwarz, author of “The Art of the Deal,” wrote in the Guardian Newspaper this week, ‘In the face of fear, it is a physiological fact that our most primitive and selfish instincts emerge…we become more self-centered…We lose the capacity for empathy, rationality, proportionality and attention to the longer-term consequences of our actions.
It serves none of us well. Think for a moment about the immense difference between how you feel and behave at your best and your worst. It is when we feel safest and most secure that we think most clearly and expansively. It’s also when we are most inclined to look beyond our self-interest, and to act with compassion, generosity, consideration and forgiveness.
…If fear gets sufficiently intense, or persists for long enough, we eventually move into “freeze” – meaning numbness and submission… The risk is that we lose our sense of outrage and our motivation to speak out. The challenge we face is to resist our own fear without sacrificing our outrage. (https://www.theguardian.com/global/commentisfree/2018/jan/18/fear-donald-trump-us-president-art-of-the-deal
Our process on the retreat to explore the impacts of these issues on us was two fold – a) exploring the personal and communal resources we have to guide us and b) making conscious, if small, commitments – or as Paul called them – resets – for living in the coming days, weeks and months.
As we explored our resources, we asked 4 simple questions.
What does our faith offer – in terms of framing, but also in terms of practice?
What about our relationships helps or hinders a healthy balance for us.
How is our church community a resource for us?
What do the poets, activists, writers, saints and role models of our lives offer us?
Exploring these falls in the shadow of another beatitude: “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
What does our faith offer us? You may have noticed that over the last couple of years we offer more silence in worship. Breathing, praying, sitting in silence in an otherwise noisy world are part of what we can do together. I know many of us have prayer or meditation practices – and many of us are seeking to develop them.
What are the practices, the habits, the patterns of your life – or what could be developed – that actually help you reduce your anxiety, your fear, your tendency to let the world close into a smaller and smaller circle? What practices invite you to a creative, expansive frame of mind? That bring you to your best self?
I suspect most of us know what these are; our struggle is to incorporate them into our daily patterns. Or to give ourselves permission to take the time to foster our spiritual life in order that we can behave as admirably as we’d like.
What about our relationships helps or hinders a healthy and balanced emotional life for us? I have benefited from the behavior of others close to me recently. Last Friday, as we were driving to Pilgrim Center (a 90 minute drive), my wife Tammy suggested we turn off NPR when the story about the vulgar language of our President came up for the third time since leaving Madison. “We don’t need to hear this story again,” she said. She was right. Listening to it again would not yield any new information and would only serve to agitate us even more just as we arrived to one of our favorite weekends of the year.
Not long ago I was sitting with a friend having to share some difficult news. After wrestling a bit in the conversation, she perked up and said, “Now…I have a joke about delivering difficult news.” Her humor wasn’t denying the difficulty of the moment, but was inviting us to pull back just enough from it to laugh. Not only was it a good joke, her courage to share it was a gift.
Most of us have patterns in even our most endearing relationships that bring out our critical, close-minded self. Alternatively, we have traditions and ways of being with loved ones that make our heart and spirit sing. How do we ease up the ‘singing’ while moving away from the ‘criticizing?’
What does our faith community provide for us?
Shortly before Christmas, the Ministry of Adult Faith Formation shared a simple ORUCC Psalter. It was a wrap up to our fall series on the psalms. In that resource, Deanna Blanchard of this congregation wrote her own psalm, which ended with these words, “I trust you are there, not paving the way, but guiding me to do the best I can for myself and others.”
I think these words are but one way of naming a powerful sentiment we seek to foster as a community – that of shared journey, the accompaniment of one another and both individual and collective trust in the Spirit’s presence in our lives. If we share this belief, how do we foster involvement and engagement – of ourselves and others – in meaningful interactions in this church. How do we nurture and celebrate the kind of journey Deanna writes about?
What do the poets, writers, saints and role models of our tradition offer us.
I am challenged by some words shared on our retreat from Martin Luther King, Jr. “Non violence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot (someone), but you refuse to hate (them).”
Whether it is the disgust or despair over the behavior of a national leader; or the irritating behavior of an annoying relative – living with a non-violence of spirit is challenging. And yet, any wise person, any sage that I have ever known, lives with non violence in both large and small situations.
Who inspires you – either challenges you to a new level or keeps you grounded?
The key to living our best selves, of course, is being intentional. So a second and equally important task is to set for simple and clear intentions. You might call them commitments; you might call them opportunities for a regular reset. But what can each of put forth as a clear, doable, useful, creative guide for how we want to live each day.
As a congregation, serving with the Interfaith Hospitality Network as been a clear intention. Becoming a Sanctuary church or moving into a new kind of partnership with The Road Home.
But we also need personal intentions. As we did this exercise last weekend, people shared some of those commitments on post its. More substantive and thorough efforts were written is silence individually. But here is what some of us set forth:
Remember what is most important, don’t get distracted from those things.
Build at least one new small group connection
Talk less, listen more to understand, smile more, be kind even if you disagree
Educate, meditate, communicate
Booster Wednesday – I don’t know what that means, but someone does and it matters to themJ
Start a gratitude journal
The rest are actually posted in the Crossroads on the board. But I would commend the exercise to us all.
What are the resources of our faith, our relationships, our congregation and those around or before us? How can we nurture our own spirit through these, and in the process be a more creative and expansive person for others.
And what can we put forth as a clear and focused intention? How are the ways we will ‘reset’ our spirits when our emotions and/or reactivity diminish us?
John O’Donohue, Irish teacher and poet, begins his book To Bless the Space Between us, with these words. “There is a quiet light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself, though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility and our hearts to love life…This shy inner light is what enables us to recognize and receive our very presence here as a blessing.”
Knowing our presence in the here and now, wherever that is for you in any given moment, we pray
May I live this day
Compassionate of heart,
Clear in word,
Gracious in awareness,
Courageous in thought,
Generous in love.
May we all live this day as a blessing – to ourselves, to one another, and to a fearful and anxious world.