Perhaps We’ll Listen

On a recent drive, somewhere along a lush tree-lined road where wildflowers bloom, I “lost” a big-city classic rock station.  As Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers faded away, I channel surfed for other music I’d enjoy.

Wherever I was at the time, nothing tuned in clearly for miles, until I heard Paul Simon singing, “Loves Me like a Rock.”  As I drove further, The Archies followed with “Sugar, Sugar.”  I couldn’t help singing along.

Then, Don McLean began his haunting, beautiful elegy, “Vincent,” one of my dad’s favorite popular songs.  In a moment, I was transported to a time in my childhood when Dad, an artist himself, tried to share some hard-earned wisdom.  Often, when he wanted me to pay attention, he would say: “Listen.  Your Daddy wants to tell you something.”  When I did, I discovered abundant treasures in his insights.  Sometimes, they saved me from going down roads of pain and heartache.

I like to imagine that all the biblical prophets and the wayshower, Jesus, wanted to do the same.  They hoped to share their profound message of God’s unconditional love, infinite compassion and ever-abiding grace, as well as their worldly experience with the people of their time — and by extension, the rest of us now — just as Vincent Van Gogh attempted to share the beauty and wonder he saw in God’s magnificent world.  As some art historians note, Van Gogh believed his first calling was to preach the word of God.

Perhaps this is why McLean’s lyrics tug at our heart strings as much as Van Gogh’s starry night, sunflowers and wheat fields do.

Now I understand, what you tried to say to me

And how you suffered for your sanity

And how you tried to set them free.

They did not listen; they did not know how.

Perhaps they’ll listen . . . now. . . .

For they could not love you, but still, your love was true.

Perhaps some did listen.  Though sometimes, we don’t want to listen.  Or can’t.  Not necessarily because we don’t know how, but because listening takes a lot of faith, patience and spiritual strength.  Because sometimes, listening hurts.  We don’t want to know what we’re being told.  We don’t want to experience our own pain, let alone someone else’s.

If we listen, we believe, we might have to do something.  Or worse, we might not be able to do anything.  Except be present.  To an elder’s wisdom.  To a friend’s deep, dark secret.  To yet another family story.  To an outpouring of emotion we don’t understand.  All of it shared in love – even when we can’t listen.

Few people understood Van Gogh’s gift in his lifetime, though now he is one of our most revered artists.  Few people understood the wisdom and love Jesus and all the prophets attempted to share, though we still endeavor to live as they advised.

Perhaps, no matter what road we’re traveling now, we’ll stop — and take some time to listen.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

To Everything, a Season

One of the blessings of ministry — and of life, if we’re paying attention — is how fortunate we are to share our journey with so many others.  Sometimes, we travel together a long way.  Sometimes we meet at a particular juncture, then move on again, each in our own direction.  Either way, when we’re present to the experience, it can transform us in rich and wondrous ways.

Such was the case for me recently when I received a referral from a colleague to officiate a funeral.  I had never met the deceased or her family before.  She was the friend of someone my colleague knew.  The service turnaround was quick.  It was Wednesday evening, the family was arriving in town on Thursday morning, and they wanted to celebrate her life on Friday afternoon.

As we planned the service, I learned about this woman’s abiding faith, her devotion to God, her love for her family and friends, her longing for justice for all people, and her zest for life.  I heard about how she called everyone in the family on their birthday to sing to them and how often it was off-key.  I discovered that she served Kentucky Fried Chicken at an important family event and got caught trying to pass it off as her own recipe.

As I perused my notes and contemplated how to tell her story, I realized the depth of her faith and strength as she lived each season of her life, including her preparation for death.  And I turned to Ecclesiastes 3:1-9:

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.  A time to be born, and a time to die.  A time to plant, and a time to harvest what is planted.   . . . A time to break down, and a time to build up.  A time to weep, and a time to laugh.  A time to mourn, and a time to dance.  . . . A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.  A time to get, and a time to lose.  . . . .  A time to be silent, and a time to speak.  A time of love, and a time of hate.   A time of war, and a time of peace.

I learn much on my journey through ministry, and one thing is clear: To everything, there is a season.  Some we enjoy, and some we don’t.  Yet, if we’re aware of what’s occurring — a child being born; a loved one dying; one team reaching the playoffs at another’s expense; a dispute settled; a crop planted, then harvested later — we remember that life vibrates in us, as us, in the celebrations as much as in the sorrows.  We discover, on the way, that no one really cares who fried the chicken.  What we remember is that in at least one season, we ate the chicken together.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Treasuring Summer

In my seventh summer, I found the Kingdom of Heaven at the beach.  Every day, from late June until Labor Day, I relished the time to see friends, swim in the ocean, stroll in the sand, and especially to collect sea glass.

At first, I kept the glass in a small jar.  Soon, though, it was full, and I transferred it to another, larger jar, creating a kaleidoscope of white, green and brown, highlighted with rare slivers of blue.  I filled that jar many times, sometimes gifting particular pieces, odd shapes or distinct colors, to my friends.  Every day was an adventure, for I always found new treasures.  And always I had room in my jar to hold more sea glass.  The supply felt unlimited.

I savored that time, especially the evenings with the peace of the vast, empty beach and the soothing flow of the waves.  The sun painted vibrant watercolor sunsets, as seagulls called to one another and scavenged the day’s leftovers.  That summer, I had everything I needed.  My life was free, easy, uncluttered and uncomplicated.  I sat on my beach chair, perfectly content, nibbling a snack, watching the world spread out before me.

I didn’t know the words “Kingdom of Heaven” then — and I wasn’t to hear them until many years later.  Yet, I knew this was a heavenly place, for I felt that surely God was the source of all that beauty and wonder.  I knew that the world lay at my feet, waiting for me to embrace and experience all its possibilities.

Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is among us and within us.  He taught that just as God provides for the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air, God also provides for us.  Jesus reminded us: As we give, so we also receive.   When Jesus spoke of Heaven, he did not necessarily mean a specific place, but the infinite potential and possibility which exist for us all, wherever we are.

That teaching is profound, though not always easy to grasp.  Yet, as we allow ourselves to flow with life, just as the tides flow along the shore, we experience more of life’s ease and joy.  As we begin to appreciate the abundance all around us, we realize the freedom we have to live in our own heavenly kingdoms and to feel the glory which lives within us and within every living thing.

While I’ve traveled many places and owned many possessions, few hold the power of my seventh summer.  Even now, I carry the memory of its promise and peace with me.  In meditation, I can return there, free, easy and prosperous beyond measure.  And when I gaze at my sea glass, now in a new jar, I remember the abundance of the universe.  God is my source, all the time, and my Kingdom of Heaven — and yours, Blessed Reader — is always at hand.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Spring Forward

This past Sunday, most of us in the United States turned our clocks forward. Some of us enjoy this change; others, not so much. Either way, in autumn, we’ll turn the clocks back. Yet, our forward motion isn’t predicated on the seasons; it’s predicated on our choices. Because as much as we might wish to turn back the hands of time, the only clocks we can turn back are the ones which we just set forward.

Our acceptance of this is also one of our greatest powers. It certainly was for me at a time in my life when I didn’t have the same spiritual understanding I have now. No matter which way I turned, every pathway I tried was filled with road blocks, dead ends, poison ivy or jagged cliffs. At one point I thought maybe I’d just give up and stay stuck. One night I even dreamt of standing barefoot in a circle of broken glass.

Then, I surrendered, turned to God in prayer, and dove deeper into my inner well of faith. As I continued my prayer practice, I dreamt one night of climbing a mountain (in waking life, I’d never climbed more than a small hill). As I put one foot in front of the other, I found that even though the altitude was high, I could breathe easily. And when I glanced behind me, the only things I could see were lush, green trees and bright, beautiful flowers. Then, I knew there was no going back. The only way out was to follow the pathway ahead. When I awoke, I took the first steps to transform my life and connect with all the people, places and things which would support me in that process.

No matter what has happened in my life since, I have held that image of the lush mountain landscape as a symbol of transformation. In my work as a pastor, I’ve been honored to witness many others transform their lives also as they’ve traveled their own unique paths.

Reflecting on that image of a lush landscape also allows us to turn the past into fertilizer – the wisdom of our own life experiences – to nurture new growth and transform ourselves and our circumstances. This is how we deepen our faith and expand our spiritual understanding, rather than our intellectual thinking and habitual doing.

Then, we discover, as we release our desire to know every fine detail, that we don’t need to know how or exactly where the path leads. We know that’s God’s job. Then, we stop trying to be who we were, so we can become who we truly are.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks. All rights reserved.

Grow Deep Roots

Those of us traveling a Lenten journey to Easter have reached midpoint.   While we know we’re almost there, we also know, we aren’t there yet. We anticipate growth, although we can’t fully see it.

Sometimes, while we’re awaiting outer evidence of inward belief, we get impatient and want to rush the process. We forget that most of life happens in God time, not human time. So, the ancient wisdom of the theologian Tertullian (155–222 CE) is both profound and reassuring: “It’s God’s nature to be patient. One of the signs that Holy Spirit [the activity of God] has descended is that patience and waiting are always by its side.”

So, we’re assured. Holy Spirit is here, present and active. Time is on our side. Gardeners, farmers, horticulturists and Jesus also teach this, as in the Gospel Writer called Luke’s (see Luke 13:6-9) brief “Parable of the Fig Tree.”

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So, he said to the gardener, “See here! For 3 years I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it waste the soil?”

The gardener replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put fertilizer in it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, then you can cut it down.”

This agrarian image, suitable for people of the 1st century accustomed to living off the land, still provides wisdom in the 21st century. Because one of Jesus’s key teachings, shared repeatedly, is that we are here to live life abundantly. This means we’re meant to be fruitful and productive in our life’s purpose, however we define it — as we align ourselves with God, and the climate, weather and other conditions at hand.

Perhaps you’ve noticed, Blessed Reader, conditions infrequently align with us. So, Jesus’s wisdom about fig trees reminds us: Growth and maturity — irrelevant of one’s calendar age — take time. For fig trees, it may be as early as 2 years or as long as 6, or longer.

We can do little to accelerate when fig trees will mature. Time and patience are key ingredients for nurturing their growth, with a generous helping of faith and trust. And just as fig trees need to grow deep roots, so do we need to dig into the infinite depths of faith already within us, even as we prepare to rise up.

The exact time required depends on our life conditions and circumstances. Yet, no matter what they are, our maturity comes in knowing, we can’t fully control them. This is part of the growth and maturation we can experience during Lent.

And, it reassures us when we discover: Sometimes, all our efforts are for naught. Sometimes, growth means plucking up or chopping down. So we can begin again. Anew. All the while knowing, resurrection is on the way.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks. All rights reserved.

Living the Divine Now

Autumn is here. Leaves are changing color. The sun rises later and sets earlier. And nestled among the aisles of pumpkins, gourds and bags of Halloween candy are Christmas ornaments, strings of lights and sparkly wrapping paper. This year, as before, Thanksgiving is set to be a footnote between two other holidays.

I don’t know how it is for you, Blessed Reader, but I’m not ready to choose a Halloween costume, bake pies, or wrap Christmas presents yet. For now, I want to enjoy Now, the end of September, the journey into autumn. I want to watch leaves change completely and crunch them underfoot, before I decide what kind of Halloween candy to buy. And, as a long-time baseball fan, I want to enjoy the rest of the 2015 baseball season, the playoffs, pennant race and World Series, before I catch up on which teams might play in the Super Bowl.

With so much going on constantly, holidays running one into another, it’s as if we’re rushed from one thing to the next, before we’ve fully savored anything. Like the vacation traveler who’s so busy posting photos of her trip, she doesn’t actually see the sites or absorb the experience. It reminds me of a quote attributed to comedienne Lily Tomlin who said, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

Many of us would admit that we don’t enjoy the rat race. Yet, we get caught in it anyway, multi-tasking, trying to do more than our share, to keep pace and live up to societal expectations – whatever those are. Sometimes we go so quickly we don’t remember what another person said, where we’re going, or how our food tastes. Sometimes, we feel like rats, rushing through the ever-winding maze of life.

The Truth is: Sometimes, in the rush, we forget that we’re divine creations of a compassionate, loving, divine creator, God, the Source of all. We lose faith in the journey, believing we have to reach the front of the pack, even as we strive for things and experiences which don’t fulfill us. We lose faith in ourselves, and in our own choices, desires and dreams.

Trusting in the process of life and having faith for the journey means that we also accept one of life’s only guarantees: We’re on this planet for a finite time. Few of us know how long. Then, to put it bluntly, we die. Which scares the bejeebers out of some people. Yet knowing and accepting this, I believe, helps us realize how truly divine and precious our lives are. So, we stop chasing someone else’s dreams and fully embrace our own. We stop searching for the eternal fountain of youth. We stop wishing — for the 5,000th time — that the other person or situation will change. Instead, we drop out of the rat race. Then we enjoy the seasons and the scenery — and all the awe and wonder the journey reveals — now.

Trust Divine Time

Remember the text from Ecclesiastes 3: “For everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven”? I like to imagine the Pauline writer (some biblical scholars aren’t convinced it was actually Paul) of Ephesians 5:15-19 knew that text when he wrote: “Be careful . . . how you live . . . making the most of the time. . . . [U]nderstand what the will of the Lord is. . . . Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs . .”                                                                                                        

Most people, when asked, say they want more time for something. Though, I’ve noticed on my to-do list, as perhaps you have, blessed reader, that we often schedule more time for things we imagine we “should” do, rather than things we truly enjoy, such as singing, dancing, playing, stopping to watch the sunset or taking a dip in the pool. As if, when we complete all the “shoulds” – if that were truly possible – then we could play and rejoice. The 1st century text reminds us that even though we have more technology than our ancestors, we in the 21st century share the same heart desire to enjoy our lives.

Rejoicing, as so much else in life, requires that we be centered in faith and trust. Because as much as we may plan things on our personal calendars or to-do lists, life doesn’t always work according to our schedules. So, rather than rejoice, we may feel angry, resentful, frustrated and depleted.

If we’re tied to our human calendar, rather than the divine calendar, or what some call “divine time,” we actually erode own spiritual life, our personal bedrock, because that’s our relationship with God. Trusting in divine time, rather than human time, requires tremendous faith. It means trusting that the universe moves in divine ways, which have little to do with our personal plans, goals, ideas and beliefs – and most important – our personal will.

Which gets us to the heart of the Ephesian Writer’s practical advice as we strive to live faithfully. Because we’re created in Unconditional Love, with Infinite Compassion, by a Divine Creator, a Spiritual Source many call God, which gives us a gift of privilege and freedom to use our time as we want. We call this free will.

However, if we’re disconnected from God as our Source, we’re more likely to run our lives with our personal will, on our personal schedule. Rather than living on divine time, and staying open and flexible when circumstances aren’t moving as we might desire, we try to direct the whole universe.

A subtle and insidious effect of wanting to direct the universe is saying something such as: “Where’s God in all this?” “What’s God doing about this?” “When will God fix this?” Or maybe we don’t even say that. Maybe we just feel hopeless, numb, exhausted and disconnected. And although some people may say they don’t feel God’s Presence, that isn’t God’s fault. It’s ours. Because God is Presence and Present; all we need to do is remember and reconnect to Source.

When we cross the line into trying to direct the entire universe, we enter dangerous territory, because we stop trusting that God is the Source of all. The extraordinary part of this simple teaching, which isn’t always easy to master, is that as we release our personal will, schedules and to-do lists, we actually surrender to God and divine time. As we align ourselves with God, we feel God’s love and compassion more fully – even when life doesn’t unfold exactly as we like. Then we trust: For everything there is a season, and we rejoice, making the most of our own precious time.