Checking Privilege Mindfully

It was my great honor to be invited by my dear friend, Rev. Rachel Lonberg, to preach this week at People’s Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Kalamazoo. The language and flow of this sermon are quite different from my usual practice, as I was speaking in a multi-faith context. I welcome the creative opportunity to express my values in a different way. Enjoy!

Breath is a funny thing. It happens all the time, whether we think about it or not. Our body simply knows how to do it. Most of the time, we take it for granted, even though it’s even more essential to life than food or water (or even iPhones or Facebook). But do we ever really pay attention to it?

I’d like to invite you to join me in a little experiment for a moment.

Try to sit up straight, as comfortably as you can, with your feet flat on the ground. Close your eyes if you like, but it’s not strictly necessary. Now, just pay attention to your breathing.

Don’t try to control or force it. This is not about deep breathing; just the regular rhythm that’s happening all the time. Imagine yourself riding your breath, as if you were a surfer on the ocean.

Notice the feeling of the air as it passes through your nostrils. Notice the movement of your chest or shoulders as the air fills your lungs. Notice the expanding of your abdomen as your diaphragm draws the atmosphere into your body.

Now, let’s just sit with that for a bit. Just keep riding the unconscious rhythm of your breathing.

After a while, you will probably begin to notice other things as well: little noises in the room, twitches or pains in your body, thoughts popping in and out of your head. These are all perfectly normal. Don’t judge them. Just keep gently bringing your attention back to the rhythm of your breathing. Let everything just happen. Don’t try to empty your mind or stop yourself from thinking. Just let the thoughts come and go. Imagine you’re sitting by the side of a river, just watching the boats go by, and each thought, sensation, or noise is just another little boat. Just watch it go by while your attention is on the river itself, and the river is your breath.

Just sit with that awareness for this moment.

When you’re ready, you can open your eyes again (if you had them closed). What did you notice about yourself during this exercise?

Some people describe themselves as feeling more relaxed peaceful. Some notice little irritations or discomfort in their bodies or environment. I often notice, just after opening my eyes again, that lights and colors seem brighter or more vivid than they did before.

What do you think would happen within you if you were to practice this for five minutes a day or longer, maybe even working up to twenty minutes?

A lot of research has gone into that very question over the past two decades. Many self-help books have been written about mindfulness or meditation. Studies have demonstrated that those who practice this exercise on a regular basis report decreased stress, anxiety, and emotional reactivity. At the same time, they report an increase in memory, focus, and cognitive flexibility. Therapists who practice mindfulness report an improvement in their counseling abilities.

I think all of these things are very good and true, but I also think there is a deeper significance to mindfulness practice that goes beyond the findings of clinical psychologists. Mindfulness, I think, brings us into a greater awareness of reality in the here and now.

The goal of mindfulness, as I understand it, is not to stop our thoughts and feelings, but to stop our identification with our thoughts and feelings. In an age where Twitter has reduced people to seething balls of opinions, mindfulness brings us back to the awareness that we are more than the sum of our thoughts. Our True Self, if you will, has roots that go much deeper than the surface of our Ego. Mindfulness brings us into conscious awareness of that True Self.

Philosopher of religion John Hick points out that all the religious and spiritual traditions of the world bring their practitioners on a similar journey. This journey is conceived and expressed in different ways: Salvation, Enlightenment, Liberation, Recovery.

What they all have in common is that they present us with a problem and a solution. The journey on which they take us, according to Hick, is a journey from a self-centered way of living to a reality-centered way of living.

I would extend Hick’s observation beyond the bounds of traditional religious practice as well. We can see the same kind of journey taking place in the late medieval and early modern ages with the advent of the Scientific Revolution.

Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, in 1543 CE, published a manuscript On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. In this book, Copernicus set forth this radical idea that the sun was the center of the solar system, while the earth and other planets revolved around it. Now, this theory was not original to Copernicus; it had been formulated before by many different astronomers around the world. However, it was Copernicus who rediscovered the idea of a heliocentric solar system for Western Europe.

The Copernican model challenged the prevailing orthodox view at that time, which declared unequivocally that the earth was stationary, while everything else in the universe revolved around it. Copernicus’ views were ridiculed and rejected by powerful religious and political forces. These supposedly heretical ideas called into question the power of a social system that was upheld by politics and religion. The thing that caused Copernicus’ detractors to tremble in fear was the thought that they might not be the center of the universe, after all.

The Copernican Revolution and subsequent development of the Scientific Method represent the gradual eclipse of traditional doctrine by rational observation in the matters of the physical sciences. Reason has not replaced religion entirely, but has caused it to adapt and grow in new ways.

If we take John Hick’s model of spirituality as a journey from self-centered thinking to reality-centered thinking, we can accept the Copernican Revolution as a scientifically ‘religious’ event. We can also understand it in terms of mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness practice brings us to the awareness that we are more than the sum of our thoughts. It shows us that we are not the center of the universe, but merely parts of a whole.

On the one hand, such a realization is threatening to any who identify themselves by their power, possessions, or privilege. On the other hand, it also has the potential to be profoundly liberating to those who are willing to open their minds.

Just think of the images that have been beamed back to Earth from the Hubble Space Telescope for the past three decades. These photographs are like sacred icons to me. In those galaxies and nebulae, I see a beauty that is so vast and so ancient that I seem like a speck of dust or a wisp of smoke in comparison. On the other hand, I realize that the same cosmic order that gave rise to that beauty exists also in the atoms of my own body. I am as much a part of them as they are of me. Together, we are the universe. Observing those images with my eyes and contemplating them with my brain, I feel both small and great at the same time. No matter what happens to me in this life, the beauty of the cosmic order will remain untouched and continue to give rise to new forms in the future. That is my basis for faith, hope, and love, and it feels like freedom.

There is freedom to be found in the practice of mindfulness, but it is far from obvious to those who persist in identifying with their egocentric thoughts and emotions. The past century has brought us an increasing (though still incomplete) awareness of the diversity and dignity of creation. This awareness has inspired some among us to stand up for equality and the rights of our fellow beings. The struggle for women’s suffrage and civil rights have given rise to movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter today.

We have made some progress, but our work has still just begun. Just as in Copernicus’ time, powerful forces are reacting strongly against the advancement of equality. As some step out and speak out for equality, there are others who decry their message as “a War on Christmas… a War on Traditional Marriage… a War on America… A War on White People… A War on Men…”

Those who have benefitted from an unfair distribution of power and resources are afraid that their loss of privileged status is an attack on their very identity and existence. In mindfulness terms, they are continuing to identify with socially constructed categories like race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, or religion.

I say “they” but I really should say “we” because I stand before you today as a beneficiary of almost every possible category of privilege that can be identified. I am a white, middle-class, straight, cis-gendered, male, American, and Christian human being. The political and economic structures of this country were set up by people who look like me and for people who look like me. I receive an unfair amount of privilege over and against my fellow human beings, simply because I was lucky enough to be born this way. I speak this morning to anyone who shares my privilege in any of the categories I just named. Even as members of the species homo sapiens, we occupy a privileged position of power over the other species and environments of this planet. The United States espouses the philosophical ideals of equality, but too often fails to live up to them in practice. Our privilege is a crime against humanity and, in the language of the Christian religious tradition, a sin against God.

While we are not personally culpable for the misdeeds of past generations, we are nevertheless responsible for doing our part to reshape the present for the sake of future generations. The task before us is to “check our privilege” in our dealings and interactions with those who do not possess a fair share of power and resources at the table. Our threefold mission, like Copernicus, is to let go of false-yet-convenient models of the past, to realize that we are not the center of the universe, and to take our place as parts of a great and beautiful whole. We can never hope to make anything “great again” because reality itself has never ceased to be great, and never will be. Its greatness is simply there, to be observed. All we have to do is open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to become aware of it.

I believe that mindfulness meditation, like we have just practiced, is one tool that we can use in cultivating this awareness of our inherent greatness. We can check our privilege, not by flagellating ourselves in guilt for the sins of the past, but by being fully present in this moment with our fellow beings. We can check our privilege by showing up, being still, looking compassionately into one another’s eyes, and listening attentively to the pain that has been caused by centuries of oppression.

Over a century ago, the members of People’s Church did just that as they sat and listened to Sojourner Truth preach from the pulpit of this congregation. By practicing mindful awareness today, we will find ourselves once again in the great company of prophets like Nicolaus Copernicus and Sojourner Truth, that great communion of saints who have made the journey from self-centered living to reality-centered living. We cannot change the mistakes of the past, but we can check our privilege by practicing mindful awareness today and so lay the foundation for a better tomorrow.

May it be so. Amen.

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.

Descent Into Sanity

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.




Note: I recently discovered that I unintentionally plagiarized this poem.  Call it a case of unconscious memory.  When I first wrote this post, I thought it was original to me, but then I went back and picked up the book Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr and found this same poem within its pages.  Oh, the embarrassment!  So, mea culpa: this poem is not original to me, but can be found on page 62 of Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr.  Apologies.

This Magic Moment

Dolores Umbridge

The text is I Thessalonians 1:1-10.

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Has anyone here read or seen the Harry Potter books or movies?  I imagine that many of you have.  Personally, I’ve seen the movies but not read the books.  If you’ve not experienced them yourself, I’m sure you’re at least aware of their existence.  Just about everybody in our culture has.

Certain groups of Christians have made quite a name for themselves by claiming that the Harry Potter phenomenon is part of a satanic conspiracy to promote the practice of witchcraft among children.  Here’s one juicy tidbit taken from the website (a very serious title):

Many think it is just harmless fantasy. True it is fantasy, but it is laced with witchcraft and demonology as are most books like it…

There are many books out about Witchcraft but none so cleverly packaged like the latest. Satan is up to his old tricks again and the main focus is the children of the world. The latestcraze is a series of books by author J. K. Rowling, known as Harry Potter…

The whole purpose of these books is to desensitize readers and introduce them to the occult. What a better way to introduce tolerance and acceptance of what God calls an abomination, then in children’s books? If you can get them when they are young, then you have them for life. It’s the oldest marketing scheme there is…

Keep these books and their teachings from your child… Some teachers are reading these books to their classes. They are pagans using the school system to spread their agenda. Your tax dollars are being used to promote Witchcraft and no one is coming against it.

Even the current Pope has got in on the fun.  Back when he was still a cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition), he said that the Harry Potter books’ “subtle seductions, which act unnoticed … deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly.”

Wow.  Pardon the pun, but this sure sounds like a witch-hunt to me!

So, what’s the real story?  Well, as it turns out the author of the Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling), far from being a practitioner of the dark arts, is actually a Christian.  And, while I’m not one to toot our church’s horn too loudly, it also turns out that this famous author is one of our own: she’s a Presbyterian and an active member in the Church of Scotland.  She says of herself, “yes, I believe. And yes, I go to the church.”  But she also says, “I don’t take any responsibility for the lunatic fringes of my own religion.”  Nor should she.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the plot of the Harry Potter novels, it follows the story of the title character and his friends as they pursue their magical education at the prestigious Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Along the way, their lives are continually threatened by the evil Lord Voldemort, who will stop at nothing to cheat death for himself.

Besides Harry and Voldemort, there are several other heroes and villains who come and go throughout the books.  There’s one of these minor characters who everybody just loves to hate.  Her name is Dolores Umbridge.  Ms. Umbridge is a person who thrives on order.  She likes neatness, punctuality, and good manners above all else.  But underneath the surface, she is sadistic and evil.  She takes a wicked delight in doling out cruel and unusual punishments on the students of Hogwart’s.

The thing about Dolores Umbridge that makes her so scary (scarier than Voldemort himself, if you ask me) is how she maintains her perfectly pressed image while being so horrible.  That image of neatness, order, and propriety is nothing more than an empty shell with no substance.  She reminds me of a poem by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu:

When the Way is lost there is virtue

When virtue is lost there is humaneness

When humaneness is lost there is rightness

And when rightness is lost there is propriety.

The “Way” that Lao-Tzu mentions is more than just a path that one follows.  For him, the “Way” is the supreme mystery that exists at the very heart of reality, from which all things are born.  For us in the Christian tradition, we could easily say, “God”.  In this poem, Lao-Tzu is describing the movement from depth to shallowness, from that which is meaningful to that which is meaningless.  In the Harry Potter novels, Dolores Umbridge is a person who has completed that journey in its entirety.

Have you ever felt that way: like you’re going through the motions, being all pleasant and polite, but you wonder if there’s anything deeper than that?  Do you ever wonder if there might be more to life than that?  Do you ever hunger for real relationship and connection with yourself, with other people, or maybe even with something more?  Do you ever wish you could find that “Way” again, as Lao-Tzu was saying, that supreme mystery at the heart of reality?

The apostle Paul, in today’s scripture reading, seems to think there is a way.  If we look at it closely, we can see the drift from deep to shallow working in reverse.  Paul begins with the polite and then takes it deep.  The reading is taken from the very beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which is probably the oldest Christian document that we have on record.  In it, Paul follows the typical format that one would find in a polite letter from the first century.  When writing an important letter in that time, you wouldn’t just start right in with what you have to say.  There were certain proprieties that had to be observed.  First, the authors identify themselves, “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy”.  Then they address their audience, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.  Then the author offers a greeting.  Paul’s greeting, “Grace to you and peace” draws from Greek tradition, “Grace”, combined with a traditional Jewish greeting, “Peace”.  So the opening of the letter goes like this: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.”

Already, Paul is taking polite custom and transcending it in order to make a theological point.  He’s trying to get his readers to look deeper into his words, past the niceties and into the truth.  He identifies his addressees with God and Jesus and then uses his typical greeting to remind them of what God is doing in their lives through Christ.  “Grace” is the unmerited favor (or unconditional love) of God and “peace” (harmony, wholeness, well-being) comes as a result of having grace in your life.  So, on one level, Paul is simply and politely saying, “Hi there!”  But on a deeper level he’s making a statement about who God is and how God works in peoples’ lives.  God is the one who brings harmony and well-being through unconditional love.

The next item you usually find in any nicely written letter from the first century is some kind of thanksgiving.  This isn’t usually offered to the letter’s recipients, but to the gods on behalf of the recipients.  For example, it might be something as simple as, “I give thanks to the gods for your good health.”  Most of the time, it was just that short.  But one unique characteristic of Paul’s letters is that he takes these thanksgivings quite seriously and spends time on them in order to make a point.  Once again, Paul is taking one of those little moments that people hardly notice in life and slowing it down in order to force them to pay attention to it and see the deeper spiritual meaning hidden within it.

Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians themselves and recounts the story of how he brought his message to them “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit”.  In, with, and under his human words, Paul tells them, there was a divine voice, the voice of the Holy Spirit, which was also speaking to them.  In the same way, Paul continues, that same Spirit was also present in them as they listened.  Paul reminds them of how they “received the word with joy in the Holy Spirit”.  So there they were, in the midst of a human conversation, but it wasn’t just a religious sales pitch.  It was also a moment of divine encounter as the Spirit of God was present and working in those who spoke and those who listened.  Once again the ordinary became extraordinary as it was infused with spiritual depth and meaning.

What was the result of this divine encounter?  Paul points to the Thessalonians’ transformed lives.  He talks about their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope”.  He says they “became imitators of us and of the Lord”, they “became an example to all the believers”, and they welcomed traveling strangers as they came through town.  Here too, the Spirit of God was present and speaking through them.  Paul observes how “the word of the Lord has sounded forth” so powerfully in the silent message of their lives that there is “no need to speak about it”.  The Holy Spirit transforming peoples’ lives toward greater harmony and wholeness through the unconditional love of God is a powerful sermon unto itself, without a single word ever being spoken.  This reminds me of that catchphrase which is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.”  Eugene Peterson says it well in his paraphrase of this passage: “The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message!”  Leonard Peltier says the same thing in today’s second reading: “Let who you are ring out & resonate in every word & every deed… You are the message.”

Beneath the surface of our polite, boring, and everyday lives there runs a deep current of spiritual meaning.  In the midst of this ordinary day a mysterious and divine presence is working extraordinary miracles of transformation.  The unconditional love of God is present in your life and guiding you toward greater harmony and wholeness.  It’s there and it’s free for all whether we choose to acknowledge it as such or not.

The question I have for you today is this: Are you content to be someone like Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, who lives life on the surface, breezing by each moment with a polite perfection that is really nothing more than an empty shell?  Or are you open to the kind of deep and meaningful reality that Paul and Lao-Tzu were talking about?  Are you willing to be mindful of the moment that you’re in, no matter how mundane, and recognize it as the dwelling place and workshop of the Holy Spirit?  If any part of you can answer “Yes” to that last question (or even wants to say “Yes”), then you’ve already begun the journey.  All that’s left to do is continually come back to that momentary awareness as often as possible during the rest of your day.  Keep coming back to it, as often as you think of it, every day for the rest of your life.  If you forget, don’t worry, just take that instant in which you remember that you are forgetting and momentarily bring your attention back to the moment itself.  Look deeper.  Pay attention.  The 17th century monk Brother Lawrence called this “Practicing the Presence of God”.  Jean-Pierre de Caussade called it “the Sacrament of the Present Moment”.  Whatever you choose to call this exercise, however you undertake it, it’s the means to reconnecting with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with that deep, mysterious presence at the heart of all existence that we call God.

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