learning a measured response in a reactive world (or on learning how to not be pissed off at the world)

If you are like me, then you tend to be a bit hyperbolic in your reaction to normal, run of the mill, everyday kind of inconveniences.  These flubs in my day to day can elicit a reaction which is not particularly helpful or warranted.  More often than not it is not what I would call a ‘measured response.’

An example:  The other day I misplaced my wallet in my home for ~ 15 minutes.  I couldn’t find it anywhere, it wasn’t in its proper place, and I combed the house for about 10 minutes.  After 10 minutes of searching, I threw myself down on my couch where I decided that I knew what had happened to my wallet: it was stolen, and by now someone was draining my bank account and stealing my identity.  I was pretty angry and frustrated with this imagined thief and with myself for allowing something like this to happen.

About 5 minutes later I found the wallet in the front pocket of my computer bag….

It seems like a lot of people I know have this kind of tendency to catastrophize, to blow their reactions to what they experience way out of proportion.  I am sure this can’t be good for our blood pressure, our anxiety and Lord knows it isn’t good for our souls.  It causes anger, resentment, frustration, and a sense of inflated self-importance which then can lead us to places of shame and guilt.  All of these are functions of our ego driven desire to have everything function perfectly, for our vision of our life to be realized every single day without having anything else throw it off our rails.

But the spiritual life teaches us that there is a center to the universe and it’s not us.  Our days are going to be filled with all sorts of unexpected hiccups along the way, we can’t control that, but we can learn to measure our response.

Learning a measured response is part of the contemplative life, the contemplative practice.  Accepting our exaggerated, ego driven reactions, letting them drift into our consciousness, observing them with humility and acceptance that they are in fact part of us, and surrendering to that which is greater and more patient that we are, the one I call God.  The great spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said, ‘whenever I sense anger arise within me, I become mindful of my breathing, embrace that anger as my friend and release it gently.’

I feel like if we lived this way it might make things like traffic, COSTCO checkout lines, losing our wallets or even the politics streaming in our Facebook feed, a more measured part of our awesome and sacred existence.  We might see ourselves and one another not as some inconvenience or adversary, but as a mystery to be explored.  Oh and maybe we could learn to laugh at ourselves a little bit more, not in a self-deprecating way, but in a humble making kind of way.  Maybe we could live into this wacky dream of a calm, centered and compassionate life, because I really do think it’s possible, by the grace of God.

why I’m old fashioned (when it comes to churchy things)

One day after a lesson on church history, a youth from our community said: “Robert, you like really old stuff a lot, don’t you?”  I replied, “The older, the better.”

See, for me, when it comes to cultivating a spiritual life or a religious practice, I think that older is usually better.

I believe the practices and disciplines we’ve inherited from the past have some spiritual truth embedded within them which is timeless and carries with it the ability to speak across generations.  This is why tradition matters to me as a pastor at simple church and which is why our worship gatherings are pretty darn traditional and old fashioned.  It’s because we believe that we don’t have to invent it all ourselves, it’s not up to us to forge some new way of being in relationship with God.  Our living generation is not THAT important in the grand scheme of things.

In fact, it’s probably more often the case that we shouldn’t even try, because I don’t know about you, but if it were up to me figure out how to cultivate a spiritual life my spiritual practice would be pretty self-focused.  If left to my own devices and operating as a religious free agent, I’d probably self-select a ton of spiritual practices that are all about filling me up and giving me a sense of well-being in the world.  I definitely wouldn’t choose to give away 10 % of my money or practice regular confession, but, the truth is, I desperately need these practices for God to help save me from myself.

Existing as part of a historical tradition enables us to fit ourselves into a larger, more mysterious and wondrous worldview.  In other words, it allows us to fit our story into God’s story of grace and hope.

Being spiritual and religious is an exercise in humility and trust.  Humility in believing that I am not innovative enough to make it all up from scratch and trust in believing that there is something of God at work underneath all these old fashioned traditional practices which is powerful enough to open our hearts to be brought into alignment with God’s heart, which beats steadily and timelessly for the healing and restoration of the whole world.

a mustard seed faith, why smaller is actually better

Luke 17:5-10

The disciples said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

The disciples ask Jesus: ‘increase our faith!’

You can hear in their request a burning desire to have more faith.  This is a very natural and human response, especially if you look at the verses right before these.  They are all about forgiveness and the difficulties of human relationships in community.  Jesus is teaching the disciples how to live with one another.  He says, don’t be a stumbling block for one another, when something happens between you forgive one another and repent, i.e. be open to transformation.

He also gives this incredibly difficult teaching: if the same person sins against you 7 times a day, forgive them 7 times a day.

The next verse is the disciples begging Jesus, ‘increase our faith!’  Which makes sense right.  Forgive a person 7 times in the same day.  Increase my faith!

The question we should ask ourselves is this: what is the disciples’ motivation?  What is at the heart of their request?  Maybe if we understand what’s at the heart of their request it can help us to understand Jesus’ response…that bit about the mustard seed.

At the heart of the disciples’ request of Jesus seems to me to be this very human understanding of the world and our lives: that more is better than less, acquiring is better than losing, bigger is better than smaller.  It’s a consumer-driven understanding of spirituality. 

The disciples are bond by a conditional understanding of their lives and their world especially when it comes to their relationship to God.  They are saying: Jesus we just need more faith and if we had more faith then we would and could finally get it.

As a pastor, I have to say that I identify with the disciples, personally, and I see it in my work.  We are still bound by the law although we say we live by grace.  In other words, we still think in an if….then…. conditional manner.

As a special function of my vocation, I sit with people who are walking through various life circumstances and struggles.  I cannot tell you how often I hear people say, I just wish I had more faith, if only I were more connected to God, if only I believed more, if only I knew how to pray, if only I gave more to the church, if only, if only, if only.

I totally get this because 9 times out of 10 it’s my modus operandi too.  If only I could do or say or be the right thing then I could finally experience salvation, healing, wholeness, contentment.

In the church, we suffer from this same thing communally.  We long for the glory days when all was well when business was booming when as a society we had a faith surplus when people came to church and the world was perfect and everyone was blessed.

And yet, during these great times of religious prosperity, the world was fraught the same issues and corporate sinfulness that we experience today.  Racism, poverty, sexism, hunger, hatred, etc.

And yet, we say sometimes, God we wish things were the way they used to be when our church was bigger and better, if we could only get back to that place everything would finally be ok, increase our faith!

Jesus response to this request is the spiritual teaching of the mustard seed, a tiny seed which grows into a tremendous shrub.  He says if you have faith that is the size of a tiny seed it is enough.

If you trust at all in that which is greater than you, the holy one, the divine, the mover of all things, it is enough… if you have an active and engaging relationship with God which is full of doubt and longing and yearning for more and more and more, you already have more than enough, not because of who you are, but because of who God is.

If you have a little bit of faith, a little bit of trust, it’s better than having the biggest, best, really super shiny kind of faith.

There’s this saying I heard recently, ‘you only want more of what’s not working’.  If you are craving more and more of something, it probably ain’t working.  More money, more stuff, more Facebook likes, more admiration, more, more, more.

Jesus telling us that less is more.  He says even a hint of trust or movement toward that which is greater than us is more powerful than we can even imagine.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, smaller is actually better.

Ok, so now onto the whole part about worthless slaves.  It’s a weird part of the text which to us seems foreign and strange and surprisingly un-Jesus like.  Here’s my interpretation of the text, backed by some commentators:

When we are connected with God through faith, we are who we are and it’s enough, even if we are ‘worthless’ by the world’s standards.

When Jesus’ asks the question, ‘

do you thank a slave for doing what the slave was commanded?’

he is getting at the heart of this spiritual issue: believing that we can or should earn our salvation.  The slave in this parable is functioning under this assumption that if he/she works hard enough they can finally receive their master’s favor, their gratitude, their blessing.  If they just work harder they will be enough.

But Jesus paradoxically says, no that’s not the way it works in the kingdom.  Someone who is spiritually grounded, rooted in God’s grace, can even say something as extreme and crazy sounding to us as this ‘we are worthless slaves, we’ve have done only what we ought to do.’

When we read this we need to pull ourselves back from this one passage and remember the larger story, remembering that Jesus places himself in this category of people.  He said, the son of man didn’t come to be served but to serve, he said if you want to be my follower you must be last of all, not first.

This parable is right along with these teachings in getting us to move beyond our categories of honor and shame, prestige or disrepute.

Jesus is trying to move us beyond our mind-frames which want to earn our salvation and fix ourselves, beyond the narrative of the world which tells us that we need more and more and more in order to be content and satisfied.

Jesus is reminding us of the gift of grace, the gift of our worthiness in the midst of worthlessness.

Jesus’ teaching here is along the same lines as St. Paul when he writes to the Corinthians, ‘therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness so that Christ’s power may rest in me, that is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, I am strong.’

We might re-work that to say when I am worthless I have unbelievable worth.

May God grant us a faith, a trust which is tiny, so tiny it can transform us and our world.

on the value of being lost

from the reflection Sunday at simple church.  cultivating calm, centered, compassionate lives.

it’s helpful if you read Luke 15:1-10

The setting for these stories that Jesus tells, of a lost sheep and a lost coin, is a confrontational moment where Jesus is responding to some Pharisees about his preference for dinner companions.  The text says some Pharisees were grumbling ‘this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’  This is a constant throughout all of scripture just FYI, anytime anyone is called to do something different, radical especially when it is done with radical inclusion in mind, there are always naysayers, negative Nancy’s, Debbie downers.  Maybe you experience this in your life, your family, your work.  People who are always just down on you no matter what you do, maybe there are people in your world that you can never satisfy NO MATTER WHAT.  It seems to me that more often than not these folks usually ‘grumble’ about what you are or aren’t doing right.

The Pharisees’ major complaint against Jesus is that he is talking, relating and gathering tax collectors and sinners, and not only is he talking to them, he’s welcoming them and eating with them.  It’s important to remember that back in the day who you chose to eat with was a MAJOR deal.  It’s kind of like a high school cafeteria, what table you sit at defines so much about who you are as a person.  Jesus lived in what we call an ‘honor and shame’ society.   Basically, we have the same societal structure still to this day, but back in the day, they were a little more overt about it.  Basically, the goal of life was upward mobility to a more and more honorable place through the accumulation of wealth, prestige, or power and authority of some kind.  You were also supposed to avoid moving down the ladder to a more shameful place, the more lowly places, the places on the bottom rung reserved for the marginalized, weak, poor, sinners, and tax collectors.

These two dualistic categories were, in fact, ontological statements about who you were as a person.  Right, so the Pharisees even say, this man (notice how they don’t use Jesus’ name, naming someone is empowering) eats with sinners and tax collectors.  They are basically defining these people with these shameful and shaming titles of sinners and tax collectors.  These folks are defined by the fact that according to the Pharisee’s they are the lost and the forsaken and their understanding of the world said, why would anyone waste their time with people like this.

But Jesus is the incarnation of God’s radical, inclusive grace, Jesus is the in-breaking of a new kingdom, a new reign, a new order of human community, Jesus is flipping all of the understandings and categories of people and ways that we define ourselves and others.  Jesus is coming to save everyone from the bondage of sin, shame, judgment and preconceived notions of righteousness, Jesus wants to unbind those who are bound and set them free with perfect love and amazing grace.

So he tells these two stories where the most valuable thing in each is the thing that’s lost.  He inverts the ‘normal’ way of seeing things.  See the normal way of seeing things is to say that all those sinners and tax collectors, the lost sheeps and lost coins were expendable.  The way of the world would say- cut your loses- don’t sacrifice the honorable for the shameful, don’t waste your time, energy, resources looking for the lost, the lonely, the powerless, focus on being more successful, gaining more honor, moving up the social ladder instead of down.

But Jesus says if you want to know what it means to be saved and made whole you have to dive into the world of the lost, you have to know forsakenness , you have to know the bondage of shame, or sin, or feeling like you are just a mistake, because all of this, recognizing it in vulnerability will allow you to be set free and to know the God who seeks you relentlessly because God desperately wants you to know the depths of God’s grace for you and everyone else in this world.

There is a value in being lost.  This is super counter intuitive for me because I love to know where I am going, I love to know which direction I’m heading, I love the fact that my iphone has two different map apps.  Just in case I don’t like the suggested route in one I can always pop onto the other one to make sure I have the fastest and shortest route.


Getting lost is unsettling, daunting, there’s a real sense of powerlessness, and there is a certain amount of shame we carry with it.   Why?  Because of ego, because we want to be right all the time.

Getting lost, being lost, teaches us about humility, vulnerability, honesty and compassion.  Being lost allows us to know the active grace that seeks us out constantly, even when we are found and safe and secure, but in those moments we don’t really appreciate it, those are the moments we might know it up here, but don’t necessarily know it in here.

We are going to get lost, literally and metaphorically.  There will be times when you feel far from God.  Times when you feel alone, afraid, and forsaken. Jesus tells us, and more importantly shows us, that this will happen, it’s not a matter of if but when.   There will be a time when all that you do feels dry and meaningless.

This is part of the spiritual life.  We need be get lost, we need to wander, we need some discomfort in our lives along the way because that’s often the time when we grow the most.  When we go into the shadow side of our lives, when we examine those things we’d prefer to keep hidden, when we acknowledge the burden and shame we carry, when we re-forge broken relationships, when we see the log in our own eye instead of the splinter in the neighbors, when we enter into solidarity with someone whose hurting and struggling and some of their pain becomes our pain, from these places real transformation happens, from these places we know grace, forgiveness, acceptance and peace in a new way, from these places we are made into a new creation.

How do we make it through these times?  That’s why God gives us trusted sources to double down on.  Prayer, scripture, community, mentors, friends, family, therapists, pastors, the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Double down of your trusted sources of encouragement, strength, grace, acceptance, and love.  Continue to follow a rule of life even if it feels empty, or devoid of meaning  .  Trusts that there is a wisdom to these things that’s bigger than you

And most importantly

Remember that God’s love and grace pursue you relentlessly, God is waiting to throw an awesome party with all the faithful and the angels when transformation happens, and it will happen if you hold on.

I want to end with a prayer that I find to be one of those trusted sources, Thomas Merton.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”


learning to live and love intentionally

Simple church exists to cultivate calm, centered and compassionate lives by following a rule of life.  As we enter into this fall and we re-launch our evening worship at 5pm on Sunday weekly (starting Sunday, September 11th), I thought it might be helpful to revisit what it means to live by a rule of life.

Simply put, a rule of life helps us to live and love intentionally.  It means committing to a transformation spiritual practice that you can actually do every day, week, or month; with the underlying belief that this rule of life will help you to see, to know and live into the rhythms of God’s grace (life-giving love) at work in the world.  A rule of life helps us to practice an ongoing awareness of God’s presence and to intentionally seek God’s grace in every movement we make and moment we have in this thing we call our life.

As with most things that actively transform us, it’s always better to start off small and go from there.  And as a friend/colleague/mentor and all around awesome person always says, “Do what you CAN and not what you CAN’T.’* In other words, a rule of life is something you commit to, but it is not something you beat yourself up over if you don’t ‘do it perfectly.’   This will actually negate the point of the whole thing which is: learning how to be more compassionate….

Ok, so what is your rule of life?  What practices do you have which fill you up & empty you out for the sake of the healing and restoration of your neighborhood/city/world?  Can you take a step back and be more intentional about how you approach your life, your parenting, your job, your family relationships, your finances, your diet, etc?

As we re-launch simple church worship I wanted to propose a new, simplified rule of life based on the Greatest Commandment Jesus gives us 1. Love God 2. Love your Neighbor 3. Love your Self.

Here’s how I parse it out:

Every day I will strive to prayerfully enact these three rules:

  1. Love God. Do something prayerful directed toward loving God- go to worship, pray the  Lord’s Prayer, sing a hymn, sit in silence for any length of time, practice Lectio Divina, dwell in grace.
  1. Love neighbor. Do something prayerful directed toward loving another person- a small act of compassion, pray for someone, help someone in need, confess your resentment/anger at another person to God, or any number of random acts of kindness one can imagine, offer grace.
  1. Love Self. Do something prayerful directed toward loving yourself- yoga, take a walk, eat a healthy meal, pay off some debt, practice generosity, receive Holy Communion regularly, accept grace.

Is this rule of life complete?  No.  Is it perfect?  No.  But it does seem like a good, maybe even a great, place to start.

If you don’t want to do it alone, you don’t have to, join us Sundays at 5pm.  Because a calm, centered and compassionate life is possible.


*quote borrowed from Rev. Nicole Riley