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.

Our Championship Call

In this season of graduations and ordinations, the Women’s College World Series, French Open, Stanley Cup Finals and NBA Playoffs, I remember that once I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer.  I belonged to an aquatic club, and trained with an Olympian.  I swan thousands of miles.  I competed at bunches of swim meets.  Once, I earned a blue ribbon in a state competition.

I continued training and swimming, at great cost.  My shiny brunette waves faded to green frizz.  I battled recurrent sinus infections, ear aches and itchy, dry skin more than opponents in the pool.  No matter how much I trained, I couldn’t keep pace.  I realized that I’d never be as good as the Olympic hopefuls.  And, as I watched a classmate win medal after medal, with tremendous strength and ease, I realized something greater: I wasn’t willing to train harder.  Swimming for Olympic gold was her calling, not mine.

Each of us has a divine call, to be a champion, to do something which truly blesses our world.  This call, whatever it may be, allows us to express the essence of who we are as divine creations of God, source of ever-abiding grace, infinite compassion and unconditional love.

And this grace, which some believe we must earn, is always free, always available, as soon as we decide to release the suffering, struggle and strife of trying to be someone we are not.  When we spiritually, if not physically, lay down, as Jesus urged (Matthew 11:28), the burdens we thought we were “supposed” to carry, and align ourselves with God.

Our championship call, no matter who we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve done or who we love, is to express our divinity, to radiate it far and wide, as Jesus did, so God’s divine works can be declared through us, as us.

Our championship call is to remove the bushel basket hiding our light (Matthew 5:15) and to shake the dust of what no longer serves us off our feet (Matthew 10:14), so we can succeed in far greater ways than we first imagined.  No competitions or contests required.

As we grow in spiritual maturity, we realize: We can’t be it all, do it all or have it all.  We also realize: That isn’t our call.   And as we align with God — and God’s will, which is always for our highest and best — our intuitive sense grows stronger and our still, small voice clearer.  We discern what is ours to do and what is not.  We discover rewards at each destination.  We rejoice in the beauty and wonder of our journey and the blessings of those who travel with us, for however long.  We cheer, with admiration, appreciation and love, for those who finish first, as well as those who finish last, because we behold the presence of God they are, always the mark of a true champion.

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

Forgive Our Trespasses

A year before my father died, I accompanied my parents to an event which involved audience participation, including rising for “The Star Spangled Banner.”   Sometimes we read aloud and sang.  Dad, who had a rich, baritone voice, sang a little, but mostly he was content to be still and, with his artist’s eye, watch the crowd and performers, rather than participate himself.  He already understood his own physical weakness and engaged with others when and as he could.

At one point, when everyone rose and Dad remained seated, a woman behind me hissed, “That man is supposed to stand up.”  I couldn’t hear her companion’s reply, if there was any.  Several times she recited this litany, even after I turned once to glance at her.  I felt anger rise in my belly, though I held my tongue.

As the show concluded, Dad slumped forward.  I knew we needed to exit quickly.  I removed his cane from beneath the seat and grabbed my purse.  As the audience gave its ovation, Dad leaned on me and steadied himself on his cane.  We were approaching the exit, when I heard a faint, “Oh, dear.  Oh, my.”  Then the woman called, “Excuse me.  Excuse me.”

I turned to her, elegantly dressed in black and white taffeta, rich, dark hair perfectly coiffed.  Before Dad could speak, she extended her hand and said, “Please forgive me.  I’m so sorry.  I didn’t know you were sick.”

When I looked at her face, I saw tears in her eyes.

Dad turned, patted her hand, and said, “It’s all right, Madame.  I forgive you.”

“Thank you,” she said, as if we’d handed her thousands of dollars.  Then she asked whether we needed help getting to the car and held the door for us as we exited.

In that moment, and in so many since, I’m grateful for the text of “The Lord Prayer” which translates:

Forgive us our trespasses, as we also forgive those who trespass against us.

Whenever, and however, we say this, we’re invited to know: Forgiveness — and our willingness to forgive — help us release blame and liberate ourselves, so resentment and upset can’t constrain us.  Forgiveness especially frees us when we or others, intentionally or unintentionally, overstep our bounds, or tread into territory which is neither ours to traverse nor ours to police.

As spiritual beings, especially as we’re finding our own way, we sometimes believe that we “should” advise others on their journeys, hold them accountable to our standards, point them in our direction, or admonish them for their “failings.”

Yet, when we remember that we’re all God’s divine creations, we also realize that all paths can lead to God, to a greater sense of joy, security, peace, health, wealth and all else we seek for fulfillment and enlightenment.  Along the way we also discover that we’re unconditionally loved, and in God’s infinite compassion and ever-abiding grace, all our trespasses are forgiven, too.

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

Moment with the Stranger

Years ago, while studying abroad in London, I developed what I thought was a deep callous on the bottom of my foot.  I treated it with ointment and patches, but it only grew larger.  My foot ached when I walked.

One day, my English mum saw me wince in pain.  Before I knew it, she whisked me off to a “doctor’s surgery,” as she called it. A pleasant woman like a physician’s assistant explained that I had a verruca (planters wart), likely contracted as a virus from the ballet studio I frequented.  When she pressed on my foot, I started to cry.  I wondered how something so small could hurt so much.

As if reading my mind, she handed me a tissue and said, “Nasty things, these.  Hurt like the dickens.”

Then she proceeded to treat the wart quickly and efficiently.  When she asked whether I had any questions, I expressed concern about how my insurance would cover the cost.  She reassured me that I only owed a minimal amount because I was a student residing with a British citizen.

I reflect on that experience now, contrasting it with what I currently witness in our global culture, kinds of nationalism which fears refugees and rising inflation, as much as diminishing resources, escalating insurance costs, and job loss.  I notice how many of us in “helping professions,” clergy, education, finance, law, medicine, can be daunted by all the work to be done.

The pressure sometimes to patch people up and send them on their way is overwhelming.  Yet, to truly invest a few sacred minutes being present with another person is part of our spiritual practice, the way we live our faith.  To share even a moment of the journey with a stranger is to acknowledge another child of God in our midst, no matter who they are, what they believe, where they’ve been or who they love.

Many spiritual practices require not only that we go forth and make disciples, sharing the truths of our own learning with those open to receive it, but that we also care, however briefly, for the strangers among us.  Scriptural law, one Jesus likely knew intimately, reminds us that we each are God’s divine creations and we’re to treat one another as such.

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

In their vulnerability, strangers offer us one more opportunity to remember the depths of our innate compassion.  To remember our call to express the presence of God we are, no matter what our work.  In the process, even when the work isn’t necessarily easier, the journey is richer.

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

A Path of Love

As spring unfolds, on a day of abundant sunshine in a bright, blue sky, I visit a new park.  My friends and I wander in various directions, and I find myself on a winding path.  I pause at a lake and admire the fountains.  I stop in an azalea grove and see the first robins of the season.

As I walk, I marvel at the day’s beauty and perfection.   I meet a family collecting pine cones, and the youngest child shows me hers.  A couple carrying the remains of a picnic wave as they pass, while a group of co-eds giggle, heads bowed, avoiding any eye contact, as if in a secret conference.  Since I don’t know my way around and several paths are unmarked, I meander onto some which twist into each other or end in a clearing.  Occasionally, I walk through brush, hearing the crunch of leaves underfoot.

Then I reach a paved walkway, which seems to lead to the other side of the park.  A sign posted indicates that the area is closed for a private event, though I hear only a crow calling and see no barrier or anyone else around.  A few yellow butterflies float ahead of me, and like a little girl in a fantasy, I venture forward, aware that I am “breaking the rules.”  As I walk, I see two benches facing one another in a grove of olive trees.  I sit on one of the benches, attempting to determine which has the better view, when I see the golden placard which reads:

In Loving Memory

Clementine Bernstein

1924-2008

I rest for several minutes, breathing in the fresh afternoon air, jotting a few memories in a tiny notebook I often carry.  I feel the warm air through my light cotton sweater.

It’s said that those who pass on never truly depart; they merely become invisible to our human sight.  I think of my father and how much he loved gardens and any pathway where he could consider, as he called the foliage, the “growings.”  I remember his advice to take time to smell the flowers, to be still and know the Presence of God, in and through all God’s creations, great and small.

At any moment, I expect to be told to leave.  Yet no one else appears, so I linger.  Only after I shift to the opposite bench to consider another view do I realize the divinity here.  For when I look at this placard, I see:

In Loving Memory

Seymour Bernstein

1923-2015

I don’t know the Bernsteins, where they lived, what they did, what they believed.  All I know is: Someone loved them.

In this season of passing over and rising up, no matter what paths we’ve traveled or where they’ve led, we can remember: We, too, are God’s divine creations, loved with an everlasting love, always, to the end of our days — and beyond.

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

In Sync

This is how it happens, how we discover that life is synchronicity.

If we’ve been doing our work, taking our (at least once) daily time for contemplation, meditation, prayer and reflection, we’re synchronizing ourselves to the rhythm and flow of life.  We’re honing our spiritual senses, so our physical senses (hearing, scent, sight, taste, touch) are keener.

One week, this is how I felt it.  I acknowledge that I may have more practice than some, though I believe anyone can do this.

That week, I prepared a sermon based on Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4).  I enjoy this story’s mystical tone, and I read several versions, noting key words.  Especially, I contemplated the woman’s desire for living water, something which would quench her thirst for life, so she could enjoy herself and know the Presence of God, with her and within her.

At this time, I also prepared for one congregant’s memorial, while another congregant was removed from life support, his journey into eternal life imminent.  I reflected on how I knew these men and how each lived, both loving men of faith, generosity, good humor, integrity and wisdom who strove to embrace life’s joys and thrive despite illness and loss.

On Sunday morning, when I started the car, I realized that I’d left the radio on.  Ordinarily, I might have turned it off and driven to church in silence.  But “Dream On,” Aerosmith’s 1973 ballad, began to play, and I heard its prophecy:

The past is gone

It went by, like dusk to dawn

Isn’t that the way

Everybody’s got the dues in life to pay

I know nobody knows

Where it comes and where it goes. . . .

Live and learn from fools and

From sages

You know it’s true, oh

All these feelings come back to you . . . .

All the feelings: All we can learn on life’s journey, if we’re paying attention to both success and failure, whether ours or someone else’s.  And how like that woman at the well some are, sometimes indulging in or wasting time with activities, people, places, possessions, and/or substances which never completely satisfy our desire to thrive.

That feeling, the one which never leaves, is divine discontent.  It’s a striving or longing which we can’t articulate, a feeling deep inside which won’t depart until we acknowledge and embrace it, and allow it to reveal our dreams and heart’s desires.

That feeling is the call of Spirit, the Presence of God within us, longing to be expressed.  In every way, it continually calls us to synchronize ourselves with the world around us.  And no matter who we are, what we’ve done before, or where we’ve been, we can use the feeling to transform ourselves and our lives, so we can thrive in the fullness of life before this journey ends.

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

On All Sides

People around the world enjoy sports: baseball, basketball, football, golf, hockey, rugby, track and field, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, among many others.  And as much as we may think that spirituality and sports are unrelated, even a casual fan can notice a team praying before a game, one athlete meditating before he or she steps onto the field, and another pointing skyward and thanking God for a victory.

Even more interesting is what the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) discovered: 25% of Americans believe that God plays a role in determining which teams win sporting events.  In addition to God’s role in a game’s outcome, 53% of Americans believe that God blesses faithful athletes with abundant health and success.  Yet, 20% of sports fans also believe that their team has been cursed at some point.  Still another 28% say that they’ve prayed that God supports their team.

The challenge with these beliefs is that they create a capricious, puppeteer deity, a god which plays with our lives like a cosmic chess match, moving us around on some heavenly game board.  It presumes that God chooses winners and losers, establishing a special bracket only one person or team can win at some pre-determined time.

Yet, the truth is: God doesn’t create brackets or pick favorites.  Though sometimes, we do.  God doesn’t move us around.  We choose where we’ll go, what we’ll do, who we’ll be and how we’ll play our own game.  We decide whether to make winning or losing the ultimate prize or whether we’ll get into the game for the pure experience and joy of it.  When we believe that God plays roles or holds positions, we forget that God is infinite compassion, overflowing grace and unconditional love, a power and presence so awesome and wondrous, we won’t ever fully comprehend it.

As we grow in spiritual maturity, we begin to realize that no matter which playing field we’re on, we choose how we’ll live and how we’ll do what all spiritual masters do: Live as the beloved, divine creations of God we are, no matter which team we’re on.  We also stop diminishing others or trying to wrestle the trophy away from someone else.  We become masters of our own spiritual practice first.  We invest time in contemplation, meditation, prayer and reflection so we can align ourselves with God.

On the way, we also release the need to know how everything will turn out.  We walk by faith, rather than by sight.  We know someone or some team will win, though we don’t always know which one.

And as we grow, we remember the truth: God doesn’t take sides.  God is on all sides, with us, within us, around us, expressing through us, as us.  And at any moment, we can change our game and be on God’s side, too.

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

Get the Feeling

In the movie classic, Tootsie, struggling actress Sandy (Teri Garr) is furious with her friend Michael (Dustin Hoffman) and distressed about her failing career. After trying to be sweet and “nice,” pretending that everything in her life is “fine,” she captures a truth about knowing oneself.  She rants and declares: “I’m going to feel this way until I don’t feel this way anymore.”

Finally, Sandy reaches the place which many on the spiritual journey do, when we realize that we can no longer maintain false poise or hold one more forced smile.  Instead, we choose to feel our feelings, accept and embrace them, and use what we’ve learned to transform our lives.

To say that we’re never afraid, angry, anxious, broken-heartened, disappointed, discouraged, embarrassed, overwhelmed, upset, or a myriad of other feelings, is to pretend that we’re robots.  It denies our humanity — and ultimately, our divinity.

Theologian and philosopher Augustine of Hippo asked: “How can you draw close to God when you are far from your own self?”  So he prayed: “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know You.”

Our awareness of ourselves and our relationship with God are inextricably linked.  If we deny ourselves sacred time for self-connection, through contemplation, meditation, prayer and reflection, we disconnect from God.

Furthermore, we struggle with life, believing that we’re emotionally healthy and spiritually mature because we deny our “negative” feelings and refuse to acknowledge them.  Sometimes we stuff them deep down inside where they begin to destroy us, in body, mind and spirit, from the inside out.

No matter where we are on our life’s journey, when we deny our feelings, we stall.  We avoid the divine messages our feelings provide.  We forget the truth: That God is always with us and within us, even when our candidate loses; we don’t get the job we wanted; we labor to release an addiction; our children or grandchildren don’t call or text; our “forever” sweetheart doesn’t love us anymore; an ailment doesn’t heal as we expected or desired; we have an accident; a friend moves away and forgets us; no one likes our social media posts; we watch a loved one die.

Yet, as we grow in spiritual maturity and emotional health, we realize that the feelings we believed would hinder us actually help us discern what we need and how we’d most enjoy living.  As we acknowledge the feelings, we also discover that they draw us closer to God, divine creator, unconditionally loving, infinitely compassionate, eternally grace-giving.

Ultimately, our feelings are part of our divinity, allowing us to know and embrace the truth of ourselves and others, too.  When we feel sad, confused, excited, joyous, or anything else, we’re feeling the life of God within.  We know that we’re alive – even when it isn’t fun.

Let us get the feelings.  Then, they won’t get us.

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