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The Way Forward, Now What?

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
April 10, 2016

Easter has come and gone. We’ve celebrated with joy and amazing music. We’ve contemplated what it means to be a doubting Thomas, to find value in our questions and doubts, in hopes of discovering the mystery and awe of deep faith.

Easter season is generally a quiet time. Most ministers take at least one week off after the intense preparations of Easter. The choir too, takes a breather and we hear beautiful music from individuals and Jeffrey, our magnificent pianist.

Today we encounter the wild story of Paul’s conversion found in the book of Acts. Paul mentions something of a dramatic conversion in his letters. In I Corinthians 15, he simply mentions that, in addition to everyone else, Christ appeared lastly to him. In Galatians he is more specific: “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”

But in Luke/Acts we hear the wildest descriptions. It has been called into question by many scholars as Luke/Acts is now considered the last of the gospel story accounts (probably even later than John’s gospel). I’m attending a Jesus Seminar program on “The New Paul,” next weekend and the first workshop is called “Paul versus Acts,” which speaks volumes.

But what does Paul’s conversion have to do with us? After the joy of Easter and the doubt and mystical faith of Thomas, are we changed by our encounter with Spirit? What difference does it all make? What motivates us to move forward in our faith in practice? Church will offer us many ways to serve within our walls and in the wider community. Each of us is unique in how we respond to the presence of the holy in our midst.

I have been pondering the words of Elizabeth Lesser in our Quiet Meditation all week:
“In a spiritual democracy it is an individual’s responsibility to move toward wholeness—to think clearly, to feel fully, to cultivate physical health, and to develop spiritual compassion and peace. If we are whole within ourselves, comfortable with both our feminine and our masculine identities, then we will project that wholeness onto the world. If we are blameful and imbalanced, responding to the world through the lens of internal split, then the outer victories will ring hollow and will only replace one erroneous ethos with another.”

What helps you to move toward the wholeness?

Paul was a zealous sort of guy and made passionate and dramatic changes that inspired his every move forward. He suggested that as we receive Christ we should walk in him. His understanding of the Spirit present in every moment helped him to make choices. His choices impacted the lives of many and gave him the courage to face incredible hardship. We believe he died as did many of the apostles, a martyr’s death.

I tend toward a bit of zealousness my own self and find Paul easy to identify with. But we don’t need a world full of Pauls. We need a world full of authentic, whole people who grow in their self-understanding and their ability to serve others in our wounded world.

I invite you to think back on times in your life when you may have been knocked off your donkey so to speak. Have you ever felt blinded by the light of some life experience? We call it being “blind-sided.” Those experiences can be so devastating that they define who we are going forward. A death of a loved one, a major illness, a job loss, all can leave us devastated and changed. How we choose to respond to those experiences make a huge difference in who we will become. Sometimes our choices are wise and we grow in depth and meaning because of them. Sometimes our choices only lead us into further suffering and even despair. But if you are still alive, and I assume everyone here, is… then God’s not done with you yet. You can choose now how you will respond to where you are in this moment.

Returning to the words of Elizabeth Lesser, in the Congregational Church of Belmont we are most certainly living “In a spiritual democracy.” Each of us has “an individual responsibility to move toward wholeness.”

What helps you “to think clearly?” Do you take time to meditate? To breathe before you speak? To study wisdom beyond a once a week Sunday morning exploration?

Do you “feel fully?” Do you experience your feelings fully? Do you stuff them with food or drink or television? Can you be with uncomfortable feelings like frustration, fear or anger without venting them on others?  Recent research has shown that venting, which everyone used to think was so healthy, actually makes negative emotions worse. We need to feel them but not spray them!

Do you “to cultivate physical health?” Taking care of our bodies may be a profound spiritual practice for many of us. If you love to hike or do yoga you are blessed. For some of us it is just work, but important work. It is a daily reminder that God have given us these bodies as vessels of the Spirit.  We are temples and need to treat ourselves well.

How do you “develop spiritual compassion and peace?” We do it by practicing peace, walking a mile in another’s shoes, learning to listen to God as well as talk, learning comfort with silence and solitude. All these are developed skills and worthy of our efforts.

“If we are whole within ourselves, comfortable with both our feminine and our masculine identities, then we will project that wholeness onto the world.” How comfortable are you with both sides of your nature? As a woman, can you be strong, opinionated, assertive? Can you dare to get things done on your own? As a man, can you resist the need to fix things and simply receive the blessing of being alive? There is a terrible imbalance in our wider world because of the imbalance of male/female energy. It is so much a part of our culture that is goes unquestioned and leads to obvious and hidden prejudices and suffering. Our fear based political environment is a symptom. So is international violence against women. In the world population, given natural birth rates, there are at least 1 million women missing.

“If we are blameful and imbalanced, responding to the world through the lens of internal split, then the outer victories will ring hollow and will only replace one erroneous ethos with another.” Religion is not meant to create conflict; it is meant to bring peace and understanding. The more we learn about faith in practice, the more we are willing to move out of our comfort zone, the more we learn from others, and work with others, the more we are likely to grow strong in a faith that is inclusive and rejects us/them thinking.

Healing the internal split is our work. And it is work! One day a week won’t do it, although it is a start. We need to put God/Spirit/the Sacred first in our lives. We need to make time to meditate, to pray, to listen. And we need to cultivate awe! Thomas Aquinas, the 12th Century father of the Church, said:
“Amazement is the beginning of philosophy. Wonder is a kind of desire in knowing. It is the cause of delight because it carries with it the hope of discovery.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if awe and wonder and joy were the foundations of our education systems?

As we cultivate joy in this season of Easter, and ponder our doubts and the mystical possibilities of life, let’s practice awe and silence so that our faith can grow into action. Amen.