Shifting Perspective

The Rich Fool by Rembrandt (1627). Retrieved from Wikipedia.


Grief is an unpredictable thing.  It tends to bring out the best or the worst in people.  Everyone grieves a loss differently, so it’s not up to anyone else to tell another person how they should or shouldn’t cope with a loss.  Some people want to laugh and reminisce about the best and favorite memories of their loved one while others might need to just be sad and have a good cry; some folks need to keep busy while others need to stop and sit down; some might need to be alone while others crave human contact.  All of these are good ways to grieve and the best thing to do whenever someone you care about is grieving is to let that person deal with their loss in whatever way they feel they need to.  You don’t have to say or do anything in particular, just be there for them, hug or give space as needed, and listen when they speak.  After all is said and done, they probably won’t remember what you say, they’ll just remember that you were there for them.

The only exception to this, the only time that grief can go wrong or turn tragic, is when a person allows the pain drive a wedge between those who are left behind.  This can happen in lots of unfortunate ways.  In cases of sudden or early death, someone might start pointing the finger of blame at others, believing that the loss could have been avoided if only the situation had been handled differently.  Even worse, some folks turn really nasty when it comes to dealing with estates and inheritances.  I’ve seen tragic situations where siblings turn against one another over the distribution of property or money in the wake of a parent’s death.  These are the only situations where I, as a pastor, want to intervene and suggest that they find another way to face the pain of loss.

In such situations, the issue at hand is rarely the money or the property itself.  Most of the time, family members are simply overwhelmed with pain and are looking for some place toward which they can direct the energy of their sadness.  In our culture, which glorifies strength and despises weakness, finding something to get angry over feels a lot easier and safer than just admitting that we’re feeling sad or lonely.  So, we hide our grief behind fights over things and never really get to the bottom of what’s really going on in our hearts: the sadness we feel over losing a loved one.  We’ve missed the point entirely and, in the process, damaged or sacrificed our relationships with the ones who might have helped us get through the pain and find our way toward healing together as a family.

The real trick in those moments is to stop, step back, and take stock of what’s really important and what life is really all about.  Is fighting over money or stuff really going to bring back the dead or help us to deal with the pain of loss?  No, not really.  Life is not about getting money or stuff.  In our better moments, we all know that.  But we forget it sometimes when the pain becomes so great that we would rather think about anything other than the fact that we are hurting right now.  I’ve seen this happen more than once and it breaks my heart every time.

In this morning’s gospel reading, the scene opens with just such a situation brewing.  Two brothers have lost their father and a dispute over a contested will has arisen between them.  We don’t know many of the details, but we get the basic outline of the situation as they bring their fight to the rabbi Jesus for a just resolution.

But Jesus, as usual, declines to answer directly the question he’s just been asked.  He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  Once again, Jesus is not conforming to the role that would normally be expected of him as an itinerant rabbi traveling among rural villages.  He continues, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

I hear something deeper in Jesus’ words to these disgruntled siblings.  I hear him saying, in effect, “What you are asking is not what you really need.  You’ve missed the point entirely.”

The key phrase in his response, which is also the central phrase in this entire passage, is, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

That one word, “life,” is super-important.  Jesus isn’t just talking about life in the sense of biological survival, he’s talking about that rich, full, and meaningful (i.e. abundant) life that God intends for us as human beings.  Jesus is talking about really living and not just getting by.

This is a particularly important (and particularly challenging) message for us to hear in 21st century America.  We live in an extremely wealthy and powerful culture.  Capitalism has given rise to consumerism in our post-industrial society.  Our sole purpose on this earth, it seems, is to produce, buy, and consume products that keep our economy going and growing at any cost.  The American dream is an ideal of security through economic prosperity.  We dream of having a white picket fence and a car in every garage.  We are inundated with literally thousands of advertisements every week, each one insisting that their product is the key to achieving true happiness in life.

Yet, one needs only look at those who occupy the top spots in the heap of consumption.  Celebrity gossip columns give a regular indication that those who “have it all” are NOT actually any happier than the rest of us.  They keep on spending their millions in the “pursuit of happiness,” only to discover that there are some things that money really just can’t buy.  Or, as Jesus put it, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

For those of us who live in this consumerist society, I think Jesus wants to extract us from the cult of MORE and initiate us into the church of ENOUGH.  And the first step in this process is to step back and really look at who we are and what we’re doing.  The meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this an “orthogonal shift.”  That word, “orthogonal,” comes from geometry, where it refers to a set of lines that run perpendicular to one another.  In the sense that Kabat-Zinn means it, an orthogonal shift is one where we step back and shift perspective in order to get a different point of view on our lives.  Kabat-Zinn says this is like moving from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional point of view: we rise above the flat level of everyday existence, survival, and concern in order to get a clearer view of the whole chessboard on which our lives are laid out.

This, in a general sense, is what we do every week here in church (and hopefully every day in our private devotional lives): we take an hour to remove ourselves from our culture’s rat race of constant production and consumption and we remind ourselves of where it is that true life, abundant life, is really to be found.  We remember that life is so much more than stuff.

The first thing we realize when we step back, make that orthogonal shift and get a three-dimensional perspective on our two-dimensional world is that we live on a planet of tremendous blessing and abundance.  We are all already spilling over the brim with “enough-ness”.  Most scientists believe that Earth has more than enough resources to safely support life for the number of people who live here, so there’s no real reason why anyone should have to experience starvation.  I won’t bore you with the statistics, but I’ll just encourage you to take your spirituality outside with you.

I mean that literally: take a hike, sit by a river, fish, hunt, or even sit on a park bench for a while.  Just get out there and appreciate the free gifts that Earth has to offer.  From what I’ve seen, those who do so come back with a much deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation for just how lush and green life can be.  That’s one way to make that orthogonal shift and get some perspective.

Another way is to keep a financial journal.  This is a great exercise, and it’s an easy one too, if you’re used to keeping good records.  The thing to do is keep track of every single penny that comes in and goes out of your bank account for a month.  And I don’t just mean balancing your checkbook, I mean really take stock of where and how you spend your money.  At the end of the month, add everything up according to category: rent, food, utilities, entertainment, charity, etc.  Where does your money actually go?  And here’s the hard question: how does that match up with the values you claim to hold as a Christian?  Are you meeting your needs before satisfying your wants?  Would a stranger, looking at this record of your earning and spending, be able to tell what your most deeply held beliefs and values really are?

Both of these exercises can be ways in which Jesus is able to lead us to that point of shifting our habitual perspectives and reminding ourselves that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Really living, according to Jesus, is about so much more than that.

One of the interesting things about this gospel passage is that Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer for us.  For example, with those two grieving brothers, Jesus doesn’t explain to them what their problem is or how to fix it.  He simply refuses to get involved in their dispute.  Instead, he challenges them (almost dares them) to make that shift in perspective themselves and see that the real source of their conflict is grief over the loss of their parent that has been misdirected as anger toward each other.

Jesus, in this situation, is drawing the brothers’ attention to the questions they didn’t even think to ask, initially.  He tells a story about a greedy farmer with the same problem.  This farmer had a huge bumper crop one year, but instead of looking to share the wealth, devised ways to build bigger barns to store keep his own massive profits to himself.  This farmer never stops to think about his wider community.  His focus is solely on “my money, my property, and my needs.”  Once again, Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer, but says more in his silence than most people do in a thousand words.

The implication, which would have been crystal clear to Jesus’ audience of hungry peasants and should have been clear to the farmer in the story, is that an abundance of blessing is meant to be shared.  We have a moral and spiritual obligation to care for one another, not just through taxes and donations to social programs, but with our own time, energy, and resources.  That, Jesus implies, is where life, real life, can really be found.

Glimpses of Wholeness

Image by Cassie J.  Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Image by Cassie J. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Have you ever look at a dog and really seen it in its total “dogness”?  A dog is quite miraculous when you really see it…

Never mind dogs.  What about a bird, or a cat, or a tree, or a flower, or a rhinoceros?!  They are all quite miraculous really.  When you really look at one, you can hardly believe it exists; there it is, this perfect thing, just being what it is, complete in itself.  Any imaginative child could have dreamed up a rhinoceros, or an elephant, or a giraffe.  But  they didn’t get here as the product of a child’s imagination.  The universe is spinning these dreams.  They come out of the universe, as do we.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, p. 153-154

Jesus Sat Down and Watched

Jon Kabat-Zinn. Photo by Mari Smith. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Some weeks, when you’re writing sermons, you have to do a little extra research.  Usually, this involves a trip to library to find a particular biblical commentary or an article in a scholarly journal, but this week, my “extra research” involved digging around in old boxes of lost junk and VHS tapes in order to find a John Travolta movie.  The movie I was looking for is from 1996.  It’s called Michael and it stars Travolta as an angel sent from heaven to help two people find true love.

All in all, John Travolta plays a rather un-angelic angel.  He smokes cigarettes, curses like a sailor, and starts fights in bars.  He has wings, but no halo.  When someone asks him why he doesn’t fit the stereotypical angelic image, he simply responds, “I’m not that kind of angel.”  However, in spite of his rough appearance, Travolta’s Michael is the real deal.  He offers these occasional moments of insight and wisdom that just blow your mind.

One such moment comes when Michael confronts another character and indicates that he is aware that she has ulterior motives regarding a certain situation.  Stunned and thinking that he must have the ability to read minds, she asks him, “How could you possibly know that?”  His brilliant response: “I pay attention.”

Paying attention is almost always good advice, whether you’re an angel on a mission, a hunter in a tree stand, or driving a car.  It also happens to be, in my opinion, essential to a healthy spiritual life.  In fact, I don’t think it would be wrong at all to say that spirituality itself is mainly an exercise in paying attention.

There are those who would disagree with me on this.  They might say that spirituality is about “getting God into your life”.  While I can respect that metaphor, I don’t really see God as a person who walks around, into, and out of things.  For me, God is that ultimate reality in which we all “live, and move, and have our being” (as the apostle Paul says in the book of Acts).  That’s why I think spirituality is all about paying attention to the God who is already here: around you and within you, revealed in the stuff of everyday life.

I can see hints that Jesus himself perhaps thought of God in this way.  Whenever people asked him to describe his ideas about God or God’s vision for the destiny of the world, Jesus used metaphors from everyday life: a woman baking bread, a farmer sowing seed, crops growing, birds nesting, and parents loving their kids.  For Jesus, God was not an abstract philosophical concept, but an intimate and loving presence that knows us better than we know ourselves and “is closer to us than our own hearts” (Augustine).  In order to reflect this intimacy, Jesus most often referred to God as “Abba”, a Hebrew word that technically means “Father” but could more accurately be translated as “Daddy”.  Even today, little Israeli kids call their dads “Abba”.  Jesus’ preference for this term was meant to make a point: he saw God as his Father, but not in a specifically male or authoritative sense.  For Jesus, God as Father is “Abba”, “Daddy”: the intimate and affectionate presence of unconditional love and care in the universe.  And it is through the regular, everyday stuff of the universe that this presence is made known to us.  Therefore, according to Jesus, it’s important to pay attention to the little details and patterns of life.

If we know where to look, we can see Jesus leading by example in this regard all through the gospels.  We read about the times when he stepped away from the crowds in order to pray or meditate.  We can hear it in the sermon on the mount and in his many parables.  In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ capacity for paying attention fuels his insight into human nature and empowers his criticism of the pious powers that be.  As usual, this passage opens with Jesus confronting educated religious leaders.  Most commentaries and sermons on this passage focus on Jesus as the social critic who exposes hypocrisy among the religious elite.  What I want to focus on today is the spiritual stance that allowed Jesus to become such an erudite critic of society.

The phrase that struck me as I was preparing for this sermon comes in verse 41: “[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.”  He sat down and watched.  You’d be amazed at how much you can learn by just sitting and watching.  In this world of high speed downloads from the information superhighway, most people are slowly losing their patience for the learning process.  We think education is just a matter of filling a person’s brain with pieces of data as quickly and efficiently as possible, but there’s something important that comes in the way we acquire and assimilate information.

When the famous scientist Jane Goodall was a little girl (about four years old), she wanted to know where chicken eggs came from, so she made her way into a chicken coop, sat down, and watched patiently for several hours on end.  Eventually, she got to see a chicken laying an egg.  As an adult, she made use of that same patience in the hills of Gombe, Tanzania, where she revolutionized the study of chimpanzees in the wild.  Her study method was the same as the one she used in the chicken coop as a kid: sit down and watch.

This time, it took her six months to get close enough for contact and real learning.  Most of the established scientists at that time criticized Goodall’s amateurish methods.  She named the chimps, rather than number them.  She preferred to pay attention to her test subjects in their natural environment, rather than take them back to a laboratory and analyze them.  Her fellow scientists were certain that such unorthodox methods could never yield real scientific results.  However, it was Goodall’s “sit down and watch” approach that changed the way we think about chimpanzees.  She was the first to observe their behavior in groups, their use of tools, their expressions of emotion, and their practice of organized warfare.  In time, she even won the acceptance of the chimpanzee tribe, simply by sitting and watching.  They eventually came to her and began interacting with her up-close on a voluntary basis.  Much of what we now know about these animals comes from Jane Goodall just sitting and watching, against the advice of other, more established scientists.

There was even a spiritual benefit to her sitting and watching discipline.  The relationship she nurtured with the natural world in Gombe shaped her relationship with the Divine.  Although she is not religious in any traditional sense, Jane Goodall has a very deep awareness of the same intimate presence that Jesus talked about.  She says, “I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I don’t know what to call it. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me.”

Jane Goodall’s practice of sitting and watching revolutionized her own spirituality and the study of chimpanzees.  In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ similar practice of sitting and watching placed him exactly where he needed to be in order to gain a very specific insight into human nature and the subject of generosity.  He was in the right spot at the right time to notice something that everyone else had overlooked.  Loyal Jews were probably going in and out of the treasury all day, leaving their offerings for the priests and temple maintenance.  Well-known and wealthy sponsors were recognized for their substantial contributions.  On a purely practical level, their large donations mattered more than the many small donations that were often left anonymously.  Among the smallest of these small donations would have been the two copper coins left by a woman who had lost everything and was, by ancient standards, of little importance to anyone.  Jesus, sitting and watching, understood the significance of her gift.  When viewed in terms of actual numbers, her donation was trivial.  But when viewed in terms of percentages, it was huge.  Two pennies to her was a larger percentage of her income than two thousand dollars would have been to the super rich philanthropists whose contributions kept the temple running.  But Jesus, sitting and watching, was the only one in a position to notice and realize the significance of this woman’s gift.  Jesus paid attention.  He saw what no one else would see, therefore he knew what no one else could know.  After sitting and watching, he walked away with more insight about the nature of generosity than any of the hypocritical scribes and Torah scholars who worked there every day.  Sitting, watching, and paying attention provided Jesus with fuel for championing the cause of poor and outcast people.  Sitting, watching, and paying attention exposed the corruption and hypocrisy that lurked just below the surface of Jesus’ polite and religious society.  Sitting, watching, and paying attention allowed Jesus to see the hand of God at work in his life and the world at large.  His vision of what this world could and should be was shaped by the simple practice of sitting, watching, and paying attention.

One of my favorite contemporary teachers of the art of paying attention is a man named Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Dr. Kabat-Zinn is the person who first introduced the practice of eastern meditation to the practice of western medicine.  His word for “paying attention” is mindfulness.  He writes:

With our cell phones and wireless palm devices, we are now able to be so connected that we can be in touch with anyone and everyone at any time, do business anywhere. But have you noticed that, in the process, we run the risk of never being in touch with ourselves? In the overall seduction, we can easily forget that our primary connection to life is through our own interiority — the experiencing of our own body and all our senses, including the mind, which allow us to touch and be touched by the world, and to act appropriately in response to it. And for that, we need moments that are not filled with anything, in which we do not jump to get in one more phone call or send one more e-mail, or plan one more event, or add to our to-do list, even if we can. Moments of reflection, of mulling, of thinking things over, of thoughtfulness.

What Jon Kabat-Zinn is asking is this: is there any regular time in your day when you set aside moments for just sitting and watching or paying attention?  Such moments can open you up to the kind of transformative insights that Jesus and Jane Goodall derived from their respective practices of mindfulness.  It may feel like time wasted, but it is really essential for productivity and creativity.  Even if it’s just a few minutes of quiet with your coffee before the kids get up, make use of it.  Don’t try to fill that space with radio, TV, or reading.  We get enough information coming into our heads all day.  Let this be a time for being not doing.  Although Jon Kabat-Zinn hesitates to use this term, I have no problem calling it spiritual.  Through the regular practice of paying attention, we are able to nurture our conscious connection with ourselves, with the world around us, and with God.

Try it sometime.  Just sit for a few minutes.  Watch.  Pay attention.  The insights you gain from this act of mindful observing may be about the world (like they were for Jesus), they might be about God, or they might be about yourself.  Given time and regular practice, you’ll begin to notice what other people pass by, just like Jesus did with the widow and her two coins.  If you let them, these insights of stillness have the capacity to transform you into a wiser, more aware, more peaceful, and more compassionate person.  In short, you become more Christ-like.  As people of faith, especially as those who identify as Christian, we need more of this kind of inner transformation in our lives.  We need to be more like Jesus.

Jon Kabat-Zinn sums up the importance of this task nicely in his own words:

It is the challenge of this era to stay sane in an increasingly insane world. How are we ever going to do it if we are continually caught up in the chatter of our own minds and the bewilderment of feeling lost or isolated or out of touch with what it all means and with who we really are when all the doing and accomplishing is sensed as being in some way empty, and we realize how short life is? Ultimately, it is only love that can give us insight into what is real and what is important. And so, a radical act of love makes sense—love for life and for the emergence of one’s truest self.

Mindfulness Meditation

This is my church newsletter column for this month:

While my son was in the hospital this summer, I stumbled across the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic.  Dr. Kabat-Zinn is credited with being the first person to make use of meditation as clinical practice in western medicine.  According to Dr. Kabat-Zinn, the words meditation and medicine both come from the same Latin word: medeor, which means “to heal”.

After listening to an on-line lecture and reading Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living, I decided to start practicing mindfulness meditation.  After almost two months, I can tell you that it has indeed been a “healing” addition to my daily self-care routine.  More than any other single practice, mindfulness meditation was most helpful in getting me through the crisis of my son’s early and traumatic arrival into the world.  My closest friends have remarked that I actually seem to be more relaxed than usual, in spite of my unpredictable circumstances!

Dr. Kabat-Zinn presents this practice from a clinical (rather than spiritual) point of view.  However, I have found it to be most helpful to my spiritual life as well.  By “tuning in” to the present moment, I have become more aware of God’s loving and peaceful presence within and around me throughout my day.  Sunsets and changing leaves have captured my attention in new ways.  I find that I can say in my daily life what we say to God during our Communion service each month:

Holy, holy, holy Lord,

God of power and might,

heaven and earth are full of your glory.

When I relax into the present moment and accept it as it is, I find that heaven and earth are indeed full of God’s glory!

If you would like to try mindfulness meditation on your own, here’s how it works:

Sit still for three minutes, close your eyes, and try to pay attention to your breathing.  Don’t breathe any differently than you normally do.  You’re breathing all the time, whether you realize it or not.  Just try to become aware of what is already happening without your conscious effort.  Start with this and see what happens.  How did you feel before, during, and after the exercise?  Once you’ve done this once, try and do the same for five minutes a day.  When you feel ready, increase that amount to ten minutes a day, then fifteen, then twenty, etc.  Dr. Kabat-Zinn recommends practicing this exercise for 30-45 minutes every day (I’m only up to twenty minutes right now).

After practicing, you might not feel any different than you normally do.  That’s okay.  The point of this exercise is to practice being rather than doing.  It’s a healthy alternative to our culture’s constant pressure to “keep going” all the time.  Many of us have forgotten the sound of silence and the feel of stillness.  We identify so strongly with our activities and accomplishments that we lose touch with our true identity as beloved children of God.  I recommend this exercise as a way of bringing us back to an awareness of who we really are.

If you’re interested to learn more, check out this lecture on You Tube:

You can also order this and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s other books on meditation from