Walking in Faith

In the famous story about Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33), Jesus goes alone to a mountain to pray, after he’s already worked a full day and fed 5,000 people.  Meanwhile, the disciples are at sea, in a boat battered by waves.  During fourth watch, (between 3:00–6:00 AM), Jesus walks upon the sea toward them.  At first, they’re terrified, fearing that he’s a ghost.

To reassure them, Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

And Peter answers, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus replies, “Come forth, Peter.”

So Peter leaves the boat and walks upon the sea toward Jesus. But then, when he feels a strong wind, he’s distracted. He begins to sink and calls to Jesus, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately, Jesus extends his hand, catches Peter, and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Sometimes, we’re like Peter, not fully grounded in our faith.  When we feel buffeted by life’s strong winds, we sometimes wake in the wee, small hours of the morning, worrying about difficulties and troubles.  Sometimes, our challenges are like hobgoblins that we imagine will haunt us forever.

Yet, as a master of spiritual maturity, fully grounded in faith, Jesus reminds us: We can learn to walk upon the waves of life when we remain buoyed by the infinite well of faith within us.  We’re also reminded: No matter what may be occurring in our lives, we can go to the “mountaintop,” to reconnect with God in prayer, meditation, contemplation, and reflection.

From that perspective, we can choose whether we’ll let life’s challenges sink us, or whether we’ll choose to do the personal, spiritual work which is needed to rise above them.  These challenges include:

  • Unresolved grief
  • Unresolved conflicts
  • Unhealthy relationships
  • Physical ailments
  • Misdirected compassion
  • Inertia
  • Financial concerns
  • Excessive activity, anger, clutter, overload
  • Addictive behaviors

When our faith is misdirected, we sink.  Sometimes, we drown, spiritually.  Yet, when we choose to lift ourselves up in faith, rather than sink into depths of doubt, fear and worry, we begin to meet life as it is.  We realize that we have greater strength than we imagined to overcome difficulties.  On the way, we also discover that we’re growing in spiritual maturity and walking with ease upon our own sea of life.

© 2017 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

No-Challenge Thanksgiving

If we’re following current news streams or social media feeds, then we’ve likely noticed that we’re in Gratitude Challenge Season.  It’s presumed to be a time when we challenge ourselves to be grateful for people, places and things in our lives.  Sometimes we do this with ease.  We’re thankful for a new job, raise, relationship or opportunity.

And, sometimes we don’t feel thankful. In fact, we may feel afraid, angry, confused, lonely, overwhelmed, sad or upset.  Sometimes, an aspect of grief, whether immediate or unresolved, clouds our perspective.  So, if we attempt to be thankful without acknowledging and owning our “negative” feelings, we may raise our voice, grit our teeth, clench our jaw, or shake our fist.

This is because the real challenge isn’t thanksgiving.  It’s acceptance that sometimes life unfolds in painful ways which we don’t we like and/or didn’t choose.  It’s realizing that thanksgiving and liking aren’t synonymous, that we don’t have to, nor are we commanded, to like everything.  In fact, it’s a height of spiritual bypassing to believe that because we’re spiritual beings living an earthly experience that we “should.”

Our discovery of this, often as an “Ah-Hah” moment, brings us to another level of spiritual maturity.  As we accept something we don’t like or didn’t choose, we can gently shift our perspective — the real challenge for many of us.  Then our thanksgiving perspective shifts also.  And we begin to feel grateful for such things as:

  • An illness requiring extended rest, because we love the view of trees out our window; the softness and warmth of our blankets; movies on demand; library books; and homemade chicken soup.
  • A layoff, because we can explore the true meaning and purpose of our work; learn a new skill or expand our creativity; notice new, open doors and opportunities; meet new people.
  • A debt, because we see that we’re trusted, with credit, to pay our bills on time; reconsider which items we need to feel content and which we can release; reach a new level of trust in God as our supply and sustenance.
  • A loved one’s death, because we appreciate the infinite love, guidance, wisdom, and joy they contributed to our lives; and our unique ability to share their gifts with others.

These are part of my thanksgiving list.  Of course, we can add many others.

And, as we accept that life has challenges, we discover ways to feel thankful continually, in all seasons, so as Disciple Paul advised, we can “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  And along the way, we embrace life as it is and discover new ways to transform it, knowing that no matter who we are, each of us is God’s Beloved, unconditionally loved, always and in all ways.

Happy Thanksgiving, Blessed Readers.  Namaste.

© 2017 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Preparing for Joy

As we journey toward the holidays, many of us already are noticing our stress levels rising and our calendars overflowing. We notice how much we could do, buy, have, or accomplish.  Sometimes we wonder how it, whatever our “it” is, will get done.

Yet, the truth is, we won’t do “it” all because we can’t.  Some things won’t get done and some things, we discover, we really don’t need to do anyway.

So, rather than wind ourselves up for stress, let us instead anticipate the holidays’ simple joys. This begins as we reflect on the reason for the season: gratitude, light and love, new life and opportunities, and, especially, God’s ever-abiding, compassionate presence in our lives.  From that perspective, we can rejoice in what matters most.

To guide the preparations:

  • Be still and silent. Stay committed to your daily prayer and meditation practice.  Use it often, especially first thing in the morning, at mid-day (or whenever you take a lunch break), and before you close your eyes to sleep.
  • Put on your own oxygen mask first, especially if you have young children, care for an elderly parent or ill spouse, manage a large staff, or oversee many projects. Remember: If we burn ourselves out first, little is accomplished and holiday prep becomes a burden rather than a delight.
  • Discern who and what you follow, especially if you’re healing from a recent loss, such as a loved one’s death. The 24/7/365 news cycle invariably has its share of sad stories, upsets and arguments, as well as its lists of the latest, greatest ways to spread holiday cheer.  Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to grieve without forcing yourself to be jolly when you aren’t.
  • During meals, even 5-minute coffee breaks or 10-minute snacks, avoid news, tweets and streams. Allow your body to absorb its physical nourishment without unpalatable information you can process later.
  • As you dine with others, gently guide conversations away from potentially contentious topics, such as politics and gossip, to something personal. For instance, ask guests about their favorite holiday memory, tradition, movie, music, or food, or about what kind of gifts they’d love to give and receive.
  • Before you rush to buy the latest, greatest gadget or toy, consider your “stuff.” If you lost belongings in any of the recent fires, floods, quakes or slides, you were forced to do this.  And if you weren’t, determine whether you or your loved ones truly want another tie, sweater, or coffee maker.  Consider instead the gifts of time and presence which can be enjoyed at movies, plays, concerts, museums or bucket-list adventures.
  • Overall, remember: Joy is a choice unlimited by time, place, or possessions. As we let joy flow into our lives, we feel it in our preparations as much as in our celebrations.

 

© 2017 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Remember Where and Who

When I was younger, my father shared his memories of walking along Madison Avenue in New York City on November 22, 1963.  He remembered hearing the news pour from doorways that President Kennedy had been shot and was dead.  He recalled complete strangers talking and weeping together in the streets. I reflect on Dad’s memories and this type of connection, as I remember my experience 16 years ago today.

At the time, I taught literature in Jersey City, New Jersey, at McNair Academic, an honors magnet high school which was a veritable United Nations of people of every ethnicity and religion.  The school was noted for both its strong spirit and its ardent respect for diverse beliefs within the community.  Several colleagues took me under their wings so I would know that I belonged, just as I took my freshmen class under mine.

And how all our wings expanded when we watched across the Hudson River, out classroom windows, as billowing, black smoke engulfed the Twin Towers.  While that day remains surreal to me in many ways, the feelings of warmth, support, and care endure.  That day, I was among a team of teachers, counselors and administrators who helped students prepare to return home, make phone calls (when phones actually worked) and face the unimaginable injury or death of a loved one.

Only when I reached the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike, where a police officer asked to see my license and registration, did I realize the magnitude of events and my ministry in something greater than myself. I also remember my depth of faith, and the love and harmony among both friends and strangers.  I witnessed how peace and compassion are a spiritual practice when we remember that God’s Presence is always active, no matter where we live or who we are.

Despite what some religious leaders profess or news headlines declare, God is not a capricious ruler, assassinating Its creations with bullets, earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes or tornadoes.  God is Divine Creator, unconditionally loving, infinitely compassionate, surrounding us always in ever-abiding grace, the moment we choose to receive it.

Let us remember, then, not only where we were once upon a time, when our world churned.  Let us also remember who and whose we are.  Even when towers collapse, mud slides, fires burn or hurricanes storm, we each are divine creations and expressions of God, living in a holy place, part of a worldwide beloved community, all the time.

© 2017 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

No Monuments Required

Those of us who preach regularly have our own process for discerning what texts to discuss and/or themes to cover, and which concerns need our attention.  Weeks before events unfolded in Charlottesville, Va., I chose a portion of Acts 17 to describe how we as God’s divine creations are called to transform our lives and our world.

In that 1st century passage, Disciple Paul addresses an Athenian council, noting both its religiosity and its shrines.  He reminds the council that God is Supreme Creator of all being and things.  He declares that the council’s purpose isn’t to create idols, erect statues or build churches.  Rather, its purpose is to seek and align with God, for God is never far away.

And perhaps, more important, he says:

In God we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, “We are God’s offspring.” And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed from gold or silver or stone.

According to Paul, then, we need only follow God.  He reminds the council — and us — that no amount of statues, monuments, or edifices can prove our love for God or make God love us anymore since we already are loved unconditionally, with infinite compassion.  Yet, 2,000 years later, we seem to have learned little of this truth.  Despite all our so-called advances, some of us have made no progress.

Our spirituality is misdirected when we choose to follow other people, places and things first, when we make idols of possessions, positions, statues and structures, all of which fall apart.  Rather than build our lives on the inherent wisdom, wonder and worth within us because we all are God’s divine creations — no matter where we live, how we look or who we love — we build ourselves and our lives on the backs of others, so our egos feel better and our pride can lick its wounds.

Some of us have been taught that we’re meant to claim our supremacy and make ourselves more powerful at another’s expense.  Some of us never learned, despite all the spiritual masters and ancient wisdom at our fingertips, that the radiant Presence of God we are, here in this world right now, is our greatest power.  And that we’re most powerful when we live from the authenticity and depth of this presence, our divinity.

What harmony and peace we will have when we remember that there is only one supreme power in the world and in our lives, that each one of us is created by it, and we all are one before it.  Maybe now, 2,000 years later, we can do as Disciple Paul advised: Live and know who we are and whose we are, all of us, everyone, no monuments required.

© 2017 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Better With Prayer

The spiritual life offers copious instructions on prayer.  We’re told to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16), to give thanks as we pray (John 11:42), to ask and we shall receive (Matthew 7:7), and to trust because God already knows what we want (Luke 12).

Yet, sometimes we believe that we’re too busy to pray, or that if God already knows what we need, there’s no reason to bother.  Sometimes we don’t believe in the prayer process, or worse, we don’t believe that we truly deserve our heart’s desires.  And sometimes, when life is swirling around us or a circumstance appears dire, we may doubt that God remembers us.  We think that God needs reminding, not only of what we want, but also that we’re here.

This is exactly when we need the reminder: Prayer does not change God.  Prayer changes us.  Prayer reminds us:

  • We are God’s beloved creations.
  • God’s unconditional love and infinite compassion continually enfold us.
  • God’s ever-abiding grace is always available, the moment we choose to align with life.
  • Wherever two or more are gathered (Matthew 18:20), we share in feeling God’s presence both with us and within us.

I experienced all this earlier in the summer during a doctor visit to determine the cause of a persistent cough (later diagnosed as a bronchial infection).  The nurse who assisted me had the gentle, warm demeanor of one who’s offered loving service for many years.  As she gathered all the necessary information, the conversation turned to my work.  And, as sometimes happens when I say what I do, she expressed awe about my calling, as if I am somehow closer to God than she is.

As the appointment ended, she tensed, staring at the ground.  Then she looked up and asked, “Would you pray for my mother and me?  She’s been ill, and I need to move her to assisted living.”

I said I would.  Then I asked, “Would you like to pray together right now?”

She exhaled a deep, “Yes,” her shoulders slumping toward me as I took her hands in mine.  Then we prayed, as I spoke words of assurance for her mother’s healing and ease in the moving process, as well as for their peace of mind.

When we concluded, she thanked me and squeezed my hands.

I reminded her of God’s love and said, “I hope the prayer helps you feel better.”

She hugged me quickly and brushed away a tear.  “It does,” she smiled. “You feel better, too.”

And, despite the cough, I did feel better.  Even more, I felt grateful for another moment of divine connection, remembering that anytime, anywhere, we can feel and behold God in everyone and in everything.  Then, we can choose our next best steps as the journey continues.

© 2017 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Faith All Around

When something annoying, aggravating, confounding, distressing or upsetting occurs in our lives, we can choose to remain unhappy in the situation.  Or, as former Daily Word Editor Martha Smock advises, we can choose to meet it with faith.

Martha encourages us to “overcome unhappiness” by looking “past what seems to be.”  This means that we choose to see beyond the outer appearance of the person, place, situation, or thing which we’ve allowed to annoy, aggravate, confound, distress, or upset us.  This is similar to Jesus saying, “Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly” (John 7:24 NLT).

As we go beneath the surface, as we turn to God’s Presence within us, we remember, as Martha says: “Nothing can separate you from God’s love, nothing can cast you down, nothing is greater than God’s power in you, with you, all about you.”  By choosing to meet life with faith, “cares slip away, and joy, the joy of Spirit rises up in you.”

“The often surprising result of holding to faith is the great welling up of faith you feel within you,” Martha says.  “Where before you thought you had faith, when you really take your stand and declare, ‘I have faith in God as the one presence and the one power, the one life, the one healer,’ there is an answering response within you.  It is as though God says within you: ‘I am here.  I am your life.  I am your being.  I am your all.’  You feel a new faith, stronger, more certain than any you have known before.  And with this faith comes healing” in every aspect of our lives.

When we meet life with faith, we remember the truth which Jesus declares: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19 ESV).

Finding Our Way

Some people say that everyone is our teacher and every experience offers a lesson.  Perhaps, though it isn’t absolute.  No matter the teacher or experience, the wisdom we seek requires an inner journey.

I discovered this truth as a young executive in Washington, D.C. when I worked with Nancy, a company vice president with a Ph.D.  Initially, I thought her eccentric.  While I, and many other women, wore crisp skirt suits and sensible pumps, she wore flowing skirts and ballet flats.  Her desk held a cascade of files, some a foot high.  Her bookshelf overflowed with volumes of scholarship she could grab at a moment’s notice.  She didn’t believe in time management and was the first person I remember discussing how to manage one’s energy.  A sign on her wall read: “A messy office is the sign of a clear mind.”  And what a mind.  When she spoke in meetings, everyone listened, and her clients adored her.

One day, as I entered her office to borrow a file, I mentioned my frustration with another V.P., who always said, “No.  This is the way we do it.”  All of the junior staff knew that it was her way or the highway.  As Nancy handed me a file, I blurted, “I can’t figure out how to do it her way.”

Nancy looked me full in the face and said, “Then do it your way.”

I think my jaw dropped because Nancy pointed to a chair, walked to her door, closed it, and asked me to explain the project.  She never gave me specific advice, though she asked several direct questions which invited me to consider my own inner wisdom.  She encouraged me to honor my still, small voice, in a place where few people discussed discernment and intuition.

Nancy and I stayed friends for the rest of her life.   I learned that she had been a modern dance instructor and painted in her spare time.  She admitted that she had some of her clearest insights while she dabbled with paint.  She encouraged me to keep practicing ballet and to return to writing.  She continually reminded me that I would always know my own way, if I invested the time in listening to myself first.

Recently, I had a spiritual conference with a congregant who lamented not being able to follow someone else’s way.

I looked at a small pile of folders on my desk and thought of Nancy.  “Then what if you did it your way?” I asked.

“Can I?” the congregant wondered.

“Of course,” I encouraged.  “You already know the way.”

And so, Blessed Reader, do you.  No matter how or where you’re traveling now, remember this spiritual truth: The power, presence, wisdom and wonder of God are both with us and within us.  And when we turn within first, we also find our way.

© 2017 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Let it Roll

Sometimes life sends us drifting out to sea.  Like an experience I had one summer at the New Jersey shore.

I was swimming in the ocean with my friends, riding waves.  I lost track of time.  First one wave knocked into me.  Then another.  I noticed dark clouds overhead.  I heard a lifeguard’s whistle, and when I looked for my friends, I couldn’t see them.

Then a larger wave loomed and, too late, I realized I couldn’t jump it.  It hit me full in the face.  When I looked at the shore, I was further adrift than before.  Again, I heard the lifeguard whistle, like a beacon, calling me home, though I didn’t know how to get there.

I felt terrified, especially when a giant wave approached.  Then, instinctively, I sank into it.  As I relaxed, I remembered that the wave was stronger than I was.  So I didn’t fight it.  For at least a minute I tumbled around, and my senses heightened.  I saw green, grey swirls.  I tasted fishy, salty water which warmed my skin.  I heard the surf roaring in my ears.

When I surfaced again, I was nearer to the shoreline than if I’d attempted to swim there myself.  I rode two more waves and walked out of the ocean.

Sometimes our lives get choppy and we find ourselves in dangerous waters.  We try to leap waves of conflicts, emotions, or stresses which appear insurmountable.  We don’t have enough money to pay our bills.  An illness isn’t healing.  We struggle in recovery from an addiction, abuse or trauma.  We’re seeking work, or the work we have to do is uninspiring and unfulfilling.  Our closest relationship may be crumbling or a loved one has died.  When we follow the news or social media, we either want to pull the covers over our heads and stay home forever, or we want to take on the entire world, so we can “right” every “wrong.”

Yet, instead of trying to overcome a giant wave, we can choose to let it roll by:

  • Sitting an extra hour in prayer and meditation, and breathing deeply.
  • Cooking our favorite meal, reading our favorite scripture, chanting our favorite song, and/or watching our favorite comedy.
  • Coloring, drawing or painting.
  • Completing a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Walking at a beach, garden, lakefront or park or doing other exercise.
  • Luxuriating in a warm bubble bath or hot tub.
  • Getting a facial, massage, acupuncture or Reiki.

Remember: When we choose to let life roll for a while, we actually return to our true selves and rediscover what we value most.  We also invariably find that life is calmer, not necessarily because the situation has changed, but because we have.

© 2017 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Door to the Soul

Few of us are free of the strictures of time.  We have appointments, deadlines, places to be, people to see, things to do.  Sometimes we believe that our success lies in checking another obligation off our to-do list.  Despite ourselves, especially when we want a desired outcome revealed immediately, we watch clocks, check our phones, peruse our calendars, tap our feet or drum our fingers if we have to wait longer than we like.  Sometimes we experience this angst within our bodies, as headache, stomachache, backache, neck twinge, muscle cramps or shortness of breath.  Other times we push or press for immediate results as our inner spiritual child jumps around asking: “Are we there yet?”

This pushing, prodding, forcing, demanding behavior, which we believe will reveal quicker results, actually blocks our way and slows our life journey.  Instead of continuing to go deep within, through our contemplation, meditation, prayer and reflection practice, we keep checking our phones and calendars, looking for the outer results we demand.

Master spiritual teacher Emmet Fox (“The Door That Opens In,” © 1937) explains why our efforts to steer the universe are futile:

The door of the soul opens inward.  That is often the reason we do not make our demonstration.  We assume that it opens outward and we press and push against it as hard as we possibly can, seemingly oblivious of the fact that we are really but closing it all the more firmly against our good.

To work in this way is really to use will power . . . .  It is simply trying to overcome by human effort and leaving God out.

Human nature is very prone to push blindly when frightened or frustrated. . . .  Prayer, however, is essentially the refusal to be rushed by panic or by the existing current of things.  In prayer, you must draw back from the outer picture, cease to press against events, and realize the Presence of God.  The door of the soul opens inward.

Whatever is occurring in your life now, Blessed Reader, step back, release, put down the phone, let go of the struggle.  Choose to open the door of your soul to place your faith and trust in God’s ever-abiding grace, infinite compassion and unconditional love.  Choose to turn inward first, before doing anything else, to connect with yourself and God’s presence within you.  Nothing on any calendar, phone or to-do list matters more.

© 2017 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.