Be Amazing

Santa by Dale SawyerFor the last two weeks I’ve been preaching on 1 Corinthians 12, the verses where it talks about us having a variety of gifts empowered by the same spirit.

It’s a message that Paul was giving to the church at Corinth, so that all people in the community would be honored and so that people would use their gifts for the common good.

Charismas for the Common Good
1 Corinthians 12: 1-11
In the first sermon, I talked about my dad’s giftedness as a carpenter (he carved the santa pictured here), and how my mom once said to me, “he’s so amazing” when she was talking about the woodworking that he does. I actually started a blog for/about him over here: Handcrafted Woodworking.

(As an aside, I have several boxes of really cool hand-crafted toys by him that I’d love to sell on his behalf. Message me if you’re interested. But, I digress…)

My point about my dad is really a point about all of us. When we step into the gifts that God has given us, and do the things that we love, the things that heal and center us, then we all become amazing.

If we do that, then together we are much more than we could ever be alone. This is how we become a blessing for the world, by receiving and living into the blessings that God has given us.

Body of Christ, Body of Humanity
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
In the second sermon, I talked about how important it is to work for the healing of the world from a center of Love and not from guilt or anger or fear. To accept that we are loved by God, to forgive ourselves and to honor ourselves (and each other), is not to become passive, but to become brave.

Coming from this core place of loving and being loved can make us brave enough to work to change the world.

Audio links here:
Nanette Sawyer- Charismas for the Common Good
Nanette Sawyer- Body of Christ, Body of Humanity

No Future

I have a wonderful spiritual director through The Claret Center in Hyde Park. We’ve been meeting for about 8 months and focusing on how to achieve balance in my life.

In other words, how can I rest? What stops me from renewing? Why do I let my sabbath time slip so easily away? How can I change the spirit with which I go through my days?

She asked me again this week…Well, really, I ask the questions, then she says, “what do you think?”

We sit on folded blankets and cushions on the floor facing each other, and I stared at the hard wood floor for a long time before answering her.

It boils down to this. I live most of the time with my mind in the future. I am very often thinking about all the things I have yet to do. I’m being overwhelmed by the things I haven’t done and I’m asking myself when I will do them. I’m feeling that I haven’t done enough, that I won’t be able to do enough, and that I’m therefore not good enough. There’s some way I need to become, there’s some place I need to get to. That way and that place are not here yet, so there’s some future that I’m half living into, grasping for.

I am RARELY living exactly in this moment now. And so my life flies by distractedly, filled with “never enough”–a week finished, an entire season gone, a year passed, 10 years completed doing my work in ministry. But much of the time it goes so fast because I’m already living in the next minute, the next day, the next week.

What if NOW is enough? What if the whole thing is here, now? What if all of my life, it’s right here, now? All of God’s love, it’s right here now. What if there’s nothing more than this?

I have the sense that if I could stop living in the future, that my days would actually feel longer. My days would certainly be calmer. I would notice more the beauty that is all around me. I would realize what a miracle it is that not only is my heart beating, but so is yours.

This self-examination I’m sharing is not an invitation for you to worry about me. I am in spiritual direction; I’m taking care of myself. But this is an invitation to see if you identify with the anxiety of striving. As we work on all these aspects of ourselves, we work with the same issues on subtler and subtler levels.

There are two widows featured in the bible readings for this Sunday, both of whom gave something away that it seemed they needed to survive into the future. The widow of Zarephath fed Elijah from the last available meal she had for herself and her son. She was prepared to die because of the drought and consequent famine that was going on. But suddenly, there was enough food to last until the rains came. She didn’t die of starvation.

The second widow is the one who gives away her last two coins to the Temple treasury. Jesus points out to his disciples that she has put more into the treasury than the gobs of money that the wealthy are offering.

What did she put in the offering plate that was more than money?

Did she put in all her fear about the future? Did she put in any last illusion that she was in control of her future?

We can’t know what the widow felt when she gave her last two coins away. But maybe she felt free. Maybe she was living exactly in that moment, and what she had to give, she gave. Maybe her whole life was complete in that moment. And she did what was the most joyful, the most generous, the most free.


The image is digitally manipulated by me, from a photograph by Marwa Morgan with Creative Commons license.

Love your enemies: an illuminated reading

One of the techniques we’ve developed at Grace Commons is to read a scripture while inserting commentary as you go.

People have told me that this is similar to expository preaching, although I’ve never learned about that specifically.

I find that many people are hungry to better understand biblical stories, and definitely want to un-do the damage done by bad application of biblical texts.

In a nutshell, in this 15 minute sermon, which I preached in February 2011, I explain how the cultural context in Jesus’s day is vitally important in our interpretation of the “Love your enemies” story.

(Oh, and I should say, I preached this as a guest preacher in a traditional church. At Grace Commons I don’t preach like this in a robe and from a pulpit. I sit with the people and wear regular clothes.)

This “love your enemies” bit is part of Jesus’s sermon on the mount and I believe it is a call to dignity for all human beings.

In this sermon I also reflect on the idea that God is “omni-partial” to all creatures and all of creation…an idea I got (and like!) from process theology.

The bible should never be used as a weapon, and if our interpretations of the text lead us to act in ways which are unkind or ungenerous, we should question our interpretation.

Specifically, regarding this admonition, “love your enemies,” Jesus is not calling us to allow people to disrespect us. Jesus is calling us to act with dignity and strive to treat all human beings with dignity.

Joy ~ Consenting to Worthiness

This is the third week of Advent, and at Grace Commons we have a tradition of honoring Mary on this week. In the past we’ve used the theme of Courage and Action, contemplating how much courage it takes sometimes to move into action.

Mary, the mother of God, is such a great, courageous example for us. She steps into her destiny. That’s so courageous. She agrees to do something that won’t be easy or simple–but it’s right for her. She has the capacity to temporarily contain the uncontainable; to hold divinity within her body. And she chooses to do so!

This year we are using the more traditional weekly themes of Hope, Love, Joy (and next week, Peace.)

I’m thinking about the kind of steady, deep (different from cheery) joy that a person has when they are doing what they are meant to do–when they feel they are being useful in the world, and using their gifts well.

The Annunciation is the announcement of the angel telling Mary what is about to happen to her through her pregnancy. It seems it would be easier if God would announce as clearly what is to happen to each of us, but we are left to discern it, to seek out our vocations, our callings, our purposes, and our capacities.

Annunciation by Denise Levertov is one of my all-time favorite poems. You can read the full poem here.  Here’s a part of it:

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

“Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives?” We have that moment when we’re confronted with the opportunity to be authentic, to believe in ourselves, to tell the truth, to take a risk for love or justice, to do something for the ones who are looking to us, relying on us to use our gifts and skills and be strong, beautiful, compassionate, steady, protective, creative.

Some moments of potential we walk into. Other times we let the gates of possibility close because of our dread, our weakness, our despair. In those moments, not only does God not smite us, but God also does not abandon us. There is always a path before us, always a next step to take, and always God is near us, God-with-us, hoping we will have the courage to let go of our own sense of unworthiness.

It’s easy to think of the Virgin Mary as demure, as quiet and obedient, submissive–it’s easy, because we’ve been trained to think that way, about Mary, about the ideal woman, or the ideal Christian. Submit, obey, demure, sacrifice, deny yourself.

But I think Mary’s example and the teaching she offers us is exactly the opposite of that. To fulfill her destiny, she had to step into herself, embody herself, and realize her own capacity. By joining herself with God, she had the capacity to carry God within her and bring God into the world.

She did not cry, “I cannot, I am not worthy,”
nor “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

She was worthy. She was worthy to meet the task that was put before her. And so are you, and so am I.

Mary did not submit, but she gave consent. Think about the difference between those two words. To submit to coercion, or to consent to possibility. I love the idea that consent illumined her.

But to what was she consenting? What I love about this poem is that Mary consents to her own worthiness. She was worthy of being loved by God, “favored” the biblical text says. And I believe that God favors each and every one of us.

This is God’s omni-partiality (a word I got from Process Theologians); being partial to, or loving intensely and distinctly, every being. God waits for us to realize that God loves us. God waits for our consent to our own worthiness before we can be filled with luminosity.

But when we do consent to that worthiness, we are strengthened with courage. And, I would suggest, we open ourselves to the possibility of a deep and abiding joy.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The image of the Spanish Our Lady of Guadalupe in Loboc, the Philippines, is from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:La_Guadalupana_Loboquena.jpg

A Network of Friends Seeking Transformation

I’m always amazed when I watch this video, by the huge amount of similarity we use in talking about our emerging efforts at being church in new ways.

Created in the spring of 2010 at a gathering in Minneapolis, this video features 16 really cool people doing awesome things across the country.

Each of us speaks for less than a minute in this 10-minute video, but the editor has interspersed our comments so that you easily hear the similarities (and differences) in what we’re doing.

I hear similarities of hospitality, having a posture of openness, taking the risk to fail and sometimes failing, being on a journey with people, really loving people sincerely, living a faith-kind-of-life, developing strong spiritual practices, claiming and interpreting the bible, putting ourselves into the stories, welcoming diversity, not using “church” words, dealing with conflict, being creative or not being creative, being changed by the people who show up; in other words, seeking to be transformed.

I wish I knew all these people better than I do, but I at least know them all a little bit!

The video was produced by Steve Knight, who founded The Transform Network, filmed by Wes Halula, and edited by Don Heatley.

Becoming Bully Proof

Yesterday a good friend of mine was in a car accident (no one was injured), and the driver of the other vehicle leaped out of his car and called her a horrible string of names that can’t be repeated here.

Being in a car accident is a scary thing, for everyone involved. For a moment, you know that you are not in control. Human vulnerability is heightened. You could be injured. You could die. Things around you break. It’s scary.

But how do we respond? How do we respond to our human vulnerability? By attacking others? By flying into a rage? By becoming a bully? Will our bullying protect us from vulnerability?

And how then, do we respond to people who turn against us like bullies? This man became a bully. He attempted to prove his Powerful Nature by dominating my friend, by insulting and demeaning her. It was an act of violence, an act of hostility. It hurt her. It would hurt any of us.

Mahatma Gandhi said that when you feel humiliated by a bully, it’s a natural thing to want to slap them to “vindicate your self-respect.”* But instead of doing that, he suggested that we try to address the feeling of humiliation inside ourselves. He said that we could become “proof” against a bully’s insults. It’s a beautiful British use of the word “proof”–like a rain coat is rain proof, or a brick is fire proof.

I love the idea that we can become bully proof. But I know that it’s a life-long task! Gandhi talked about internalizing a non-violent spirit in order to become “proof” to violence.

I believe that bully-proofing begins with self-awareness of the shame and humiliation that is already inside us, learning to love and forgive ourselves again and again. For me, it has to do with accepting my imperfection and failings, and knowing that I am human and beautiful and beloved, even when I make terrible mistakes.

Usually, my mistakes are not as terrible as I fear, my imperfection is not as horrible as I dread. But that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is extending generous hospitality to myself, even (especially) in the face of hostility directed against me.

Self-awareness and self-acceptance allow me to experience the goodness that is at the core of my being, underneath and before every bad judgement, every mistake, every oversight.

I make mistakes, but mistakes are not who I am. This awareness is the basis for feeling that I am completely capable of growing and changing–that I am valuable and deserve to be treated with respect at ALL times. All of us deserve to be recognized as having inherent worth and dignity.

Let a bully’s insults remain “in the bully’s mouth and not touch you at all,” Gandhi said.*


*You can find these quotes and more discussion of these ideas and related spiritual practices on page 139 in my book, in the chapter on “Hospitality to Enemies: Extending Generosity through Non-Retaliation.” The Gandhi quotes came originally from The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas, page 174. My book is Hospitality-The Sacred Art, published by Skylight Paths Publishing.

Poverty of Heart Means Openness

The reviewer at Publisher’s Weekly described my understanding of hospitality as “capacious.” I had to look that word up! (You can read the full review on the Amazon.com site.)

Capacious means containing or capable of containing a great deal, roomy. Yeah. So, not only my book, but hospitality, too. A roomy heart and life. Capacious!

Priest and author Henri Nouwen (pronounced Now-win) wrote so beautifully about spaciousness of heart during his lifetime. One beautiful image I got from him was the understanding of “poverty of heart” as “openness” of heart. He wrote of this in his book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. I highly recommend this book.

Nouwen wrote,

A good host not only has to be poor in mind but also poor in heart. When our heart is filled with prejudices, worries, jealousies, there is little room for a stranger…[W]e have to remind ourselves constantly that an inflated heart is just as dangerous as an inflated mind. An inflated heart can make us very intolerant. (pg 106-7)

But how can we let go of these “prejudices, worries, jealousies” and let our hearts relax into openness? First we have to realize that we are carrying these feelings around with us and that requires self- awareness. There are lots of ways we can improve our self-awareness: through meditation practices, through talk therapy, through conversation with friends, through journaling, or any number of spiritual practices. (I write about these and others in detail in my book, along with step by step instructions to try different practices.)

Hospitality involves awareness of the self–what’s really going on inside me–as well as awareness of the other. We have to see others clearly, and not through a haze of preconceived ideas about them.

With poverty of heart we can receive the experiences of others as a gift to us. Their histories can creatively connect with ours, their lives give new meaning to ours, and their God speaks to ours in mutual revelation. (p 107)

So if we can develop the kind of poverty of heart that means uncluttered, then we will have a much greater capacity to welcome others truly. We will have a capacious capacity for hospitality.

Born of a Woman

Last year (2010) in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we did an art project at Wicker Park Grace during our Sunday Gatherings in which we transformed Christmas advertisements into a spiritual symbol. The idea was to disconnect from the excessive commercialism that Christmas has become, and reconnect to the underlying spiritual story of how the Divine came into human form through the birth of Jesus.

We got the idea from our friends at House for All Sinners and Saints and their pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, in Denver, CO. They did the project in 2008. They called their icon, Our Lady of the New Advent. They did theirs on poster board, but we wanted something more long lasting so we used a 1/2 inch thick art board and painted details on top of the collage.

I describe the project, tongue-in-cheek, as a paint-by-numbers Mary and Jesus project. The first week, with the background painted in green but Mary and Jesus blank white space, we thought it looked like an alien snowman from outer space. Each week we painted in a new color as background, and during the prayer time at our Spiritual Practice, people brought forward torn up bits of Christmas advertisements they brought from home, and glued them into the color-coded section.

Artist Monica J. Brown guided the project, and painted in the details, the faces and hands, at the end of the project, using an Ethiopian icon as a model for the features. Now this piece of art, collaboratively created, holds a central place in our gathering space on Sundays.

For pictures of the project all along the way, check out this set in flickr:
Theotokos icon project

Looking for the Evil Within Us

In my book on Hospitality-the sacred art, I have a chapter devoted to hospitality to our enemies. These are two words we don’t put together in our heads (or our practice) very often. Hospitality. Enemies.

The idea is very akin to the Jesus concepts of “Love your enemies,” “pray for those who persecute you.” When Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” it’s a similar thing.

In the chapter, I outline a spiritual practice of Self-Examination because transformative spiritual hospitality is based, I believe, on honest self-awareness. This is especially important when we are faced with adversarial or hostile situations.

I rely a lot on the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in this chapter, as they were brilliant theologians and practitioners of “loving” “enemies.” Rev. King has a great sermon called Loving Your Enemies that he preached in 1957, before I was born. I relied on his sermon for inspiration and courage in writing my chapter about hospitality to enemies. Read his full sermon here.

Here is a short piece from my book:

Dr. King’s second step toward loving enemies invites us to look within for a very specific purpose. He suggested that we look for the good in our enemies and look for the evil that is in us. Dr. King described us as being split up and divided against ourselves as though a civil war were raging inside us. It is the “isness” of our present nature being out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us, Dr King said. In other words, we’re not as completely good as we would like to be.

If we can recognize that this is true within ourselves as well as within our adversaries, then we can no longer see ourselves as entirely innocent, or our adversaries as entirely guilty, or evil. There is no wholly good person, just as there is no wholly bad person. There are only human beings. When we can realize and remember our shared humanity with our adversaires, our attitude can shift, and a little compassion may even rise up within us.

If you would like to explore this particular practice, you can simply add a new step or focus to the earlier exercise of self-examination. Work your way through the same steps of imagining your adversary, and this time look for signs within yourself of hostility, hatred, disrespect, disdain, or anything that undermines the humanity of your adversary by seeing him or her as all bad. Also notice that seeing yourself as all good undermines your own humanity too, because that belief is not based in the complex reality of what it means to be human.

Psalms for Praying

This is one of my favorite books for prayer and liturgy. We use this book almost every week at Wicker Park Grace for our liturgical psalm.

We sing a refrain, taizé -style, sometimes an actual song from Taizé , and sometimes an original refrain composed to go with a particular psalm. In between the communally sung refrains, designated readers read the text of the psalm while our musicians improvise quietly in the background.

For example, from our gathering on Sept 11, we spoke these words from psalm 114:

Begin with REFRAIN:

Come all you who have wondered far from the path,
who have separated yourselves from Love;
A banquet has been prepared for you in the heart’s secret room.
There you will find the way Home; a welcome ever awaits you!
Even as you acknowledge the times you have erred,
The forgiveness of the Beloved will envelop you.

REFRAIN

Call upon the Beloved when fear arises, when you feel overwhelmed;
The eternal Listener will heed your cry;
You will find strength to face the shadows.
Befriend all that is within you, discover the Sacred Altar within your heart.
Then will abundant blessings enter your home;
And you will welcome the Divine Guest who is ever with you.
You are never alone!

REFRAIN