Sunday, February 17, 2008


Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” John 3:3 Amen.

The story is told of a priest who announced during his sermon that Jesus Christ himself was coming to the church the following Sunday. People turned up in large numbers to see him. Everyone expected him to preach, but he only smiled when introduced and said, “Hello.” Everyone offered him hospitality for the night, especially the priest, but he refused politely. He said he would spend the night in church. How fitting, everyone thought.

He slipped away early the next morning before the church doors were opened. And, to their horror, the priest and people found their church had been vandalized. Scribbled everywhere on the walls was the single word “Beware.” No part of the church was spared: the doors and windows, the pillars and the pulpit, the altar, even the Bible that rested on the lectern. “Beware.” Scratched in large letters and in small, in pencil and pen and paint of every conceivable color; wherever the eye rested one could see the words: “Beware, beware, beware, beware, beware, BE AWARE . . .”

Shocking. Irritating. Confusing. Fascinating. Terrifying. What were they supposed to be aware of? It did not say. It just said, “Beware.” The first impulse of the people was to wipe out every trace of this defilement, this sacrilege. They were restrained from doing this only by the thought that it was Jesus himself who had done this deed.

Now, that mysterious word, “Beware” began to sink into the minds of the people each time they came to church. They began to beware of the Scriptures, so they were able to profit from the Scriptures without falling into bigotry. They began to beware of sacraments, so they were sanctified without becoming superstitious. The priest began to beware of his power over the people, so he was able to help without controlling. And everyone began to beware of religion which leads the unwary to self-righteousness. They became law abiding, without forgetting that mercy is the ultimate form of justice. They began to beware of prayer, so it no longer stopped them from taking responsibility for their own lives. They even began to beware their notions of God so they were able to recognize God outside the narrow confines of their church.

They now have inscribed the shocking word over the entrance of their church and as you drive past at night you can see it blazing above the church in multicolored neon lights.

Beware. Be Aware. This is what Jesus was trying to communicate to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a good religious person, a teacher of the law, one who observed carefully all the rules and rituals. And yet, he could not see the kingdom of God. He was not aware. He had not yet been born from above.

In this passage, Jesus is teaching us the difference between being religious and being aware, the difference between religious institutions and the kingdom of God. They may overlap; all too often they do not. Beware that you do not confuse the means with the end.

Our Scriptures, our sacraments, our spiritual practices are good and necessary things, but they are means to the end that we might wake up and see the kingdom of God in our midst. Religious institutions can be useful containers of valid teaching and traditions that shape our perception, but they point beyond themselves. As the mystics of the East declare, “When the sage points to the moon, all that the idiot sees is the finger.” Without awareness, we find ourselves, like Nicodemus, staring at the finger of religion while failing to see what it is pointing to.

It isn’t enough to go through the ritual motions, to honor the traditions, to venerate the symbols of religion; we are invited to something much more – to see and experience ourselves the reality that they signify. We are invited to be born from above, to inhabit our religion with awareness, actually living the truth and not simply believing in it.

The problem with religion is that it tends to be conservative in the sense of seeking to conserve or preserve what it has. Jesus comes into the midst of the world of religion and shatters it in an act of utter abandon, an act of sacrificial love. He gives himself away for the sake of the world, keeping nothing back for himself. He does this so that the world might not be condemned but rather healed, reconciled, made new.

It is the practice of self-giving love that finally saves the world. With awareness, we come to embrace the practices of our faith to the end that we might become one with Christ in this act of self-giving love. Our meditation, our prayer, our devotional reading, our Sacraments, all the wonderful practices that we are exhorted to renew during this season of Lent, are all simply vehicles of our birth from above. Lent provides us the opportunity to inhabit our religious practices with awareness of their true purpose.

This heavenly birth is a metaphor for becoming aware, learning to perceive reality as Jesus perceived it – as the object of God’s eternal love. The world is not something to be rejected, avoided, and vilified, but rather the place in which God’s love comes to rest.

The price of awareness, however, is costly. For it gives birth to love, and love is sacrificial by its very nature, giving of itself for the sake of the beloved. When we practice our religion with awareness, we enter into a world of risk-taking where we find ourselves continually having to let go of what we think we must preserve, instead choosing love over security. We chop off our finger, if necessary, so that it no longer obscures the moon.

Two brothers – one a bachelor, the other married – owned a farm whose fertile soil yielded an abundance of grain. Half the grain went to one brother and half to the other. All went well at first. Then, every now and then, the married man began to wake with a start from his sleep at night and think: “This isn’t fair. My brother isn’t married, he’s all alone, and he gets only half the produce of the farm. Here I am with a wife and five kids, so I have all the security I need for my old age. But who will care for my poor brother when he gets old? He needs to save much more for the future than he does at present, so his need is obviously greater than mine.”

With that he would get out of bed, steal over to his brother’s place, and pour a sackful of grain into his brother’s granary.

The bachelor brother too began to get the same attacks. Every once in a while he would wake up and say to himself: “This simply isn’t fair. My brother has a wife and five kids and he gets only half the produce of the land. Now I have no one except myself to support. So is it just that my poor brother, whose need is obviously greater than mine, should receive exactly as much as I do?” Then he would get out of bed and pour a sackful of grain into his brother’s granary.

One night they got out of bed at the same time and ran into each other, each with a sack of grain on his back! Many years later, after their death, the story leaked out. So when the townsfolk wanted to build a church, they chose the spot at which the two brothers met, for they could not think of any place in the town that was holier than that one.

Jesus invites Nicodemus, invites us, to be like these brothers: to wake up, to remove the ego that is blocking the lens of perception so that we can see beyond our narrow constructs and insecurity to behold the kingdom of God. Then we will be born from above and experience the freedom of sacrificial love. And we will be surprised to discover that people we never expected turn out to be brothers and sisters bearing gifts in return.

The moral of the story: The important distinction is not between those who worship and those who do not worship but between those who love and those who don’t. Jesus came, not to found a church, but to save the world. Thus, if you are going to build a church, beware. You may have to give it away. In fact, if it is built on the place where love meets love, you won’t be able to stop yourself. So, beware. BE AWARE. Amen.

NOTE: The stories of “Jesus Coming to Church” and “The Two Brothers” are from Anthony De Mello’s Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Practical Spirituality

Spirituality is about how we live our life, not some esoteric addition to "real" life that we can easily compartmentalize: "I went to church on Sunday, so I can check 'spirituality' off the list for this week!" Our spiritual practices or disciplines are what give shape and content - structure and meaning - to our lives. Spirituality is life lived with awareness and freedom.

So, a few practical tips:

Wake up an hour earlier each morning
(and, if necessary, go to bed an hour earlier). So much of the resentment and anxiety that we acquire in the course of the day stems from the hurried pace of our life. The way we begin our day sets the foundation for much that follows. Too often, I sleep in until the very last possible minute, and then am frustrated (and frustrating) due to my mad rush to get out the door. In my haste, I am short with loved ones, forgetful, and defensive in my posture toward the world.

What a difference it makes to begin the day leisurely, to make sure I have enough time to meditate, exercise, have breakfast with my family, and then begin the work of the day feeling focused and energized. We have all the time we need. With some simple planning and forethought, a tweak here and a tweak there, we can alter the quality of our day.

Do one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is a sin. It divides us against ourselves and scatters our attention. The result is that we do several things poorly, without joy, and without real engagement with life. We coast on automatic pilot at best, and, at worst, injure our spiritual, mental, and physical health. It is an act of disrespect not to give people and tasks our full attention. So, when you are praying, then pray. When you are eating, then eat. When you are playing with your children, play with your children. When you are serving a customer, then serve your customer. People will appreciate and respond to your attention, the quality of your work and play will improve, and you will feel more serenity and joy. You will discover your capacity to really be of service in ways that improve the quality of life for everyone you encounter.

Meditate for 30 minutes each day. I know, I know, you don't have time to do this. But now that you are getting up an hour earlier, you do! Here is how you do it:

1. Choose a sacred text as the focus of your meditation and commit it to memory; a passage grown venerable with time and usage that speaks to the highest human aspirations. The Lord's Prayer, the hymn to love in I Corinthians chapter 13, or a psalm of praise works well. Choose carefully, as we internalize the texts upon which we meditate and incorporate them into our identity and practice. We become what we pray. Now and again, choose a different text as your focus.

2. Select a time and place to meditate each day. If possible, make it a space in your home devoted to this practice - even a corner will do. Choose a time that is quiet and uninterrupted. First thing in the morning is best. In addition to the quiet, you will carry the benefit of the practice throughout the day.

3. Sit in a comfortable but alert position, with your back, neck and head in vertical alignment. Close your eyes to facilitate concentration. This is a time for quieting the senses. It is great if you can manage the full lotus position (I can't). If not, it is fine to sit in a chair with your feet firmly planted on the ground and your legs providing a secure base. Gently rest your hands in your lap.

4. Silently repeat the sacred text to yourself. Focus on each word, with a pause in between them. Allow each to drop into the depth of your consciousness. This is not a time for discursive thought or reflection. Simply keep focused on the text. When you become distracted (and you will), simply return to the beginning of the text and start over.

5. Set a timer so that you aren't distracted with worry over what time it is. In time, you may intuitively know when the meditation time is over. The time will pass more quickly than you think!

This is how we learn to practice the presence of God, by honing our power of concentration and increasingly gaining control over our mind. Too often our "thoughts think us" rather than the other way around. We became prisoners of our patterns of thinking and feeling, often not even aware of them. Meditation is the door to freedom through which we regain the capacity to choose what we will think and feel, the capacity to see reality as it is and respond appropriately, often intuitively. Self-consciousness slips away to be replaced by God-consciousness.

The fruits of meditation are not theoretical. They are practical and empirically verifiable through disciplined practice over time. I don't think it is possible to enumerate the ways in which this practice will change your life. It is the difference between slavery and freedom. Find out for yourself.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Holy Lent Begins With Forgiveness

“As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us.” Amen. Psalm 103:12

This evening, I want to begin with a story.

Abbot Anastasius had a book of very fine parchment, which was worth twenty pence. It contained both the Old and New Testaments in full. Once a certain monk came to visit him and, seeing the book, made off with it. So that day when Anastasius went to his Scripture reading he found that it was gone and knew at once that the monk had taken it. But he did not send after him, for fear that he might add the sin of perjury to that of theft.

Now the monk went into the city to sell the book. He wanted eighteen pence for it. The buyer said, “Give me the book so that I may find out if it is worth that much money.” With that, he took the book to the holy Anastasius and said, “Father, take a look at this and tell me if you think it is worth as much as eighteen pence.” Anastasius said, “Yes, it is a fine book. And at eighteen pence it is a bargain.”

So the buyer went back to the monk and said, “Here is your money. I showed the book to Father Anastasius and he said it was worth eighteen pence.” The monk was stunned. “Was that all he said? Did he say anything else?”
“No, he did not say a word more than that.”
“Well, I have changed my mind and don’t want to sell the book after all.”

Then he went back to Anastasius and begged him with many tears to take back the book back, but Anastasius said gently, “No, brother, keep it. It is my gift to you.” But the monk said, “If you do not take it back, I shall have no peace.” After that the monk dwelt with Anastasius for the rest of his life.

Now, I invite you to notice several things about this beautiful parable. Notice first how Anastasius responds to the loss he has suffered. He is not angry or resentful. He is not despairing. He does not wallow in self-pity. In fact, Anastasius is never a victim in this story. He is always acting rather than re-acting. The initiative is with him, not with the thieving monk. And Anastasius chooses to begin with forgiveness.

It is forgiveness, complete acceptance, which defines Anastasius’ relationship with the monk who stole from him. So rather than Anastasius reacting to being harmed, it is the monk who finds himself reacting to the forgiveness he has already received. Before he acknowledges his sin, before he can apologize or make amends, the monk discovers he is already forgiven. Forgiveness comes first; then repentance is possible.

Anastasius, like God, reverses the usual order of things. We think we must repent, change our life, make good, prove our worth, and THEN maybe God will accept us. Not so. God begins with forgiveness. We are loved and accepted always and already, regardless of what we may do or think. It is when, like the monk in this story, we realize how much we are loved that we can relax and allow that love to change our lives forever.

So, we begin with forgiveness. The second thing to notice is the response that Anastasius invites from the repentant monk. He does require the monk to return what he stole. He doesn’t demand sacrifice or self-condemnation. Instead he offers the monk a gift. The monk accepts the gift and dwells with Anastasius for the rest of his life.

You see, this is the kind of response that God desires from us. God doesn’t seek to weigh us down with guilt or shame. There is no demand that we become someone we are not, or even change in any way. God offers us the gift of God’s self; represented in this story by the Holy Scriptures, the living Word of God. We are given everything we need as a free gift. Our response is simply to make our home with God.

When we accept the gift, then we change. We keep thinking we have to take the initiative, do something, before we can receive the gift. But we already have the gift. It is simply life with God, which is our birthright signified in baptism. We have everything we need. The only response God desires is for us to dwell with him forever.

God begins with forgiveness. Then we accept the gift, which is already ours. But it doesn’t end there. Notice, finally, that in dwelling with Anastasius for the rest of his life the monk, in effect, becomes united with Anastasius. He takes his identity from Anastasius. I would like to think that in doing so he discovered and expressed in his own life the tremendous freedom demonstrated by Anastasius.

The point of this story, my friends, is not finally to identify with the forgiven monk, but to identify with the One who forgives. We know ourselves as forgiven on the way to becoming forgiving people. Knowing and accepting God’s love for us, coming to take our identity from God, we become increasingly detached from the praise and condemnation, the harms and the pleasures, we receive from others. They no longer have the power to define us. We are free to act out of the abundance of love that we possess from God. We can become free to forgive as we have been forgiven.

Our Lenten observance, then, is an opportunity to renew the practice of forgiveness in our own lives. It is an invitation to let go of those things that keep us from taking our identity from God. When Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal,” he is calling us to the kind of freedom that Anastasius exemplified. Matt. 6:19-20.

With this freedom comes the capacity to embrace the kind of fast that the prophet invites us to choose: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke . . . to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; and when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide your face from your own kin.” Isaiah 58:6-7

Anastasius had his heart set on heavenly treasure, and thus was able to set the guilty monk free through the practice of forgiveness and mercy. God begins with forgiveness. We accept the gift, which is already ours. And then we share the gift with others so that they too, may find freedom – freedom from all the forms of suffering that keep people from experiencing the dignity of their humanity; freedom to choose to live with God for the rest of their lives.

Do you want to observe a holy Lent? Then begin with forgiveness. Accept the gift. Set others free. This is the heavenly treasure that cannot be taken away from us. Set your hearts upon it and live with God forever. Amen.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

An Ash Wednesday Meditation

What are you giving up for Lent?

It is a commonly asked question this time of year. Anthony de Mello tells a story that frames the question differently.

There was once an ascetic who lived a celibate life and made it his life's mission to fight against sex in himself and others. In due course, he died. And his disciple, who could not stand the shock, died a little after him. When the disciple reach the other world he couldn't believe what he saw: there was his beloved Master with the most extraordinarily beautiful woman seated on his lap!

His sense of shock faded when it occurred to him that his Master was being rewarded for his sexual abstinence on earth. He went up to him and said, "Beloved Master, now I know that God is just, for you are being rewarded in heaven for your austerities on earth."

The Master seemed annoyed. "Idiot!" he said, "This isn't heaven and I'm not being rewarded - she's being punished."

When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten; when the belt fits, the waist is forgotten; when all things are in harmony, the ego is forgotten. Of what use, then, are your austerities?

- De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations

Renunciation only binds us more tightly to what we are trying to avoid. Cultivate insight, understanding, detachment, and compassion instead, and whatever needs to be let go will drop away of its own dead weight. You will not need to "give it up." You will not even notice "it" anymore.