March On

During my years in Washington, D.C., I participated in several rallies and marches.  One occurred at Ward Circle, just outside the American University campus where I was completing my final semester as a sociology undergrad.  For a class activity, I stood with Professor Barbara Kaplan, waving a sign which read: “Peace Now.”

Times were calm.  People drove past, waving and honking sporadically.  No one much cared about some college students protesting in the nation’s capital.  When my picture appeared in the school newspaper, I felt honored.  Professor Kaplan patted me on the back and winked: “Well done.  Now you’ll have a file at FBI headquarters.”  I wasn’t concerned.

A few years later, I marched with a group of women along Constitution Avenue to a rally at the Supreme Court.  We waved signs supporting women’s rights, especially for equal pay and affordable health care.  On the Supreme Court steps, as I awaited the keynote address, another woman approached and started talking.  At first, I thought we shared similar views.  Then she barraged my friends and me with statistics about abortion, birth control and infant mortality.  I attempted to shout her down, but to no avail.  Eventually, I became hoarse, muttered something like, “Whatever,” and moved away.  But not before I heard her say, “They’ll get you for this.  You’re going to hell.”

For a while, I felt nervous, not about hell, but about what my employer might think.  Or other friends and co-workers who didn’t agree with me.  Then, I remembered: I’m an American with freedom of speech, who can stand on the Supreme Court steps and declare my beliefs.

Nowhere, on those occasions or any others, do I remember any violence.  The usual Washington, D.C. security systems functioned properly, and we marched peacefully, albeit loudly.  No one fought or feared the “other side.”

I reflect upon those times, as the liberties our founding fathers and mothers, immigrant ancestors, and spiritual wayshowers established for our well-being are threatened.  I think about how each generation is called to stand up, to step out in faith — yet again — to transform our world so it becomes a better place for generations to come.

I also notice tremendous anxiety, dread and tension.  I pastor to people who fear for their safety, security and livelihoods, including some young adults concerned about what might happen to them if they’re arrested.  Others who campaigned for various causes still look forlorn.  They hang their heads with downcast eyes.  All express their concerns about the future and strive to realign with their faith.

Everywhere, it seems, we seek an encouraging word.  So, to all who march, wherever they may be, I offer this ancient assurance, passed from generation to generation:

“Be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you [and within you] wherever you go.”   (Joshua 1:9)

Lift your gaze, raise your heads high, and march on, Blessed Readers.

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

Not Mine, But Thine

As 2017 unfolds, some of us are noticing that what we wholeheartedly resolved on January 1st is already a challenge to manage.   Perhaps we’re avoiding, procrastinating or resisting.  Perhaps we’ve asked ourselves: “Do I really want this?” or “Is this truly best for me?”

If we’ve asked either of those questions, or one like them, then we’re ready to take another faithful step forward, to consider putting our personal will in the backseat and allowing God’s will to direct our lives.

While God’s will is rarely easy to understand, it’s always for our best.  As Richard and Mary-Alice Jafolla, former directors of Silent Unity, explain:

God’s will is the unrelenting desire in you to express your divine potential.  . . . God’s will is radiant health, abundant prosperity, limitless love, eternal happiness, and the knowledge that you are part of God.  . . . God’s will is God, seeking to express in you and as you.  [Adventures on the Quest,  2001, p. 120]

When we argue for our will, instead of trusting God’s, we imprison ourselves in destructive behaviors and self-defeating attitudes.  We wander endlessly, needlessly, dazed and confused, like Alice in the rabbit hole, because we refuse to open our eyes, ears, minds, hearts, and especially ourselves, to behold what’s before us — in new, transformative ways.

Ultimately, to know God’s will, we must surrender preconceived notions — including other’s opinions and the way it’s always been done — to something greater.  Discerning God’s will, rather than our own, requires faith, patience and trust so we know exactly which steps to take and when.

Here, then, are some practical ways to discern God’s will:

  • Schedule daily time for contemplation, meditation and prayer in a sacred way and comfortable place. This includes sitting on our meditation cushion, as well as hiking in the forest, fishing on the lake, or strolling through the park.
  • Breathe deeply, gently, and speak the words: “Not my way, God, but Your way. Not my will, but Thy will be done.”
  • Acknowledge and mourn whichever desires, dreams and/or goals are dead and which won’t occur as we once hoped.
  • Concede our ideas about how something “should” unfold and allow time and space for Holy Spirit to do Its work.
  • Consider which roads are blocked, whether detours can be cleared and what other avenues may lead to something better than we imagined.
  • Stop checking the rear-view mirror and release the past to the past.
  • Focus on the road before us, eyes on the horizon, while still noticing what’s immediately ahead.
  • Remember: God is eternally grace-giving, infinitely compassionate and unconditionally loving. Refuse to believe fatalistic notions portraying God as a capricious presence which wills evil, pain and suffering on Its creations, or picks and chooses who wins and who loses in some great cosmic lottery.
  • Trust that every ending brings another beginning, and know that as we release our way, God’s way meets us exactly where we are.

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

The Presence of Love

A meme winds its way around social media.  A black-and-white illustration reveals animals in a manger, surrounded by trees.  A lone star shines above.  The caption reads: “A nativity scene without Jews, Arabs, Africans or refugees.”

Perhaps it would be poignant, if it weren’t so cutting.  Perhaps it would be comical, if it weren’t so timely.

It reminds me of the ancient teaching from Deuteronomy (See 10:12-19) which invites reflection on how to express God’s love.   We’re instructed to:

. . . revere the Lord your God, to walk in all God’s ways, to love God, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep God’s commandments and decrees.

We’re urged to follow God’s laws.  And in so doing, to open our hearts, not only to God, but to all others, too.  The text continues:

Cut away, then, the barrier around your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.

We’re urged to consider how our hearts may be hardened and whether we’re hanging onto an old prejudice we haven’t completely released.

We’re invited to remember:

God, mighty and awesome, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves strangers [also translated as immigrants], and provides them food and clothing. You also shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in a foreign land.

The truth is: At least once in our lives, we’ve all been strangers somewhere.  As we reflect on how powerful God’s unconditionally loving, infinitely compassionate presence is, we also can remember that once we felt hungry, tired, cold, hurt, lost, afraid or alone.

We also can remember that God’s loving presence appeared — in its own way — with skin on.  When we felt the presence of love in a blanket, a hug, a prayer, a phone call, gas money, a ride to the doctor, help getting up the ladder or down from the cliff.  When someone, sometimes a stranger, changed our flat tire in the rain, paid for our dinner, or gave us a gift we never could purchase ourselves.  With no strings attached.

These days, headlines would have us believe that it’s Us versus Them.  That we better steel ourselves with weapons, behind closed doors, because the world is a dangerous place.  If we believe some of the headlines, any stranger or immigrant in our midst could be a threat.  Though whoever the stranger is, s/he also is a divine child of God.

The child to be born in Bethlehem knew how to open his heart.  He studied God’s law.  He knew how to love unconditionally.  Sometimes, we may struggle to imagine how he did it, when we know the challenges and conflicts he faced.

Still, we can remember: The teachings don’t say we have to understand others.  Or like them.  They tell us to love.

The child to be born in Bethlehem, enfolded in love, will teach his followers (see Luke 10:27):

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

Love like that isn’t for the faint-hearted.  Love like that takes all the heart we have.  And the presence of that love is the greatest gift we can give — no matter what the season.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Habari Gani, and Happy New Year, Blessed Readers.  Thank you for being with me on the journey.

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

In the Name of Peace

Advent, a season of preparation and reflection, continues with a focus on peace — within the world and within ourselves.  As we journey toward Christmas, we prepare for the birth of the Christ Presence and anticipate a peaceful future.

Perhaps we also notice: Sometimes, one person or event can inspire another.  As Jesus’s older cousin John the Baptist did when he traveled through the Judean wilderness, proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven was near (see Matthew 3:1-12: “Preparing the Way”).  He declared that another prophet would follow him, and he prepared the people by baptizing them in the River Jordan, offering physical and spiritual purification as they anticipated a new Heaven on Earth.

John, a bombastic, biblical “bad boy,” liked to challenge people and argue about how others chose to follow God’s law.  He concentrated more on the law’s letter than its spirit.  Mystically, John the Baptist can represent that part of us which wants to fight about what’s correct, rather than working to ensure peace.  John within us is a strong intellectual, though seldom a compassionate, peaceful presence.

During Advent, as we consider peace, we can choose whether we want to be more like John or like the one who’ll be called Prince of Peace.  Rather than blaming, finger-pointing and arguing with someone about who’s correct, we can choose to see the situation differently, change our behavior and transform our lives.  We can remember: People change only when they’re ready and some situations are out of our control.  So, we can choose whether we want to be “correct.” Or whether we want to be peaceful.

As we reflect on how the Prince of Peace will live, we may wonder how he remained steadfast and faithful in the face of harsh conflicts and challenges.  We may doubt that we ever could do as he did.  Though perhaps we can be inspired by a modern-day peaceful presence, Noble Peace Prize recipient and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, who survived in prison for 27 years, from 7 November 1962 to 11 February 1990, chose to focus on what he could transform — himself first.  He said:

. . . the first thing is to be honest with yourself.  You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself.  . . . Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.

As we consider peace, we can remember that Mandela cherished the ideal of a harmonious, peaceful, democratic and free society with opportunities for all people.  When he was freed, he said:

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

And despite all he experienced, he also said:

I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.

A beautiful dream.  One, I pray, we hold for our nation, too.

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

Pie for Breakfast (And a Few Other Ways to Enjoy the Holidays)

During the Thanksgiving holiday before I left Washington, D.C. for good, I relished my time with family and friends. I honored my contemplative spirit which needed a respite from the fast-paced, high-powered lifestyle of “have-to’s, ” “musts” and “shoulds.” Especially, I enjoyed the Friday morning following Thanksgiving when Dad and I ate our traditional post-holiday breakfast of leftover pie and ice cream.

As I savored a combination of apple-cranberry and cherry garnished with coffee ice cream, I recounted a few disappointments, including our lack of a storybook holiday.  Dad, who’d worked in advertising, listened, then said: “Those only happen in movies and commercials.”

Alas, I knew he was correct.  And, as a pastor, I’ve witnessed how many people feel sadness and grief in believing that everyone else has a “Hallmark-Card-I’ll Be Home for the Holidays” experience.

The truth is: Few holidays are ideal.  And when we pressure ourselves to create such a fantasy, we set ourselves up for disillusionment and distress.  Furthermore, the pressure to meet others’ expectations or outshine our neighbors has us saying, doing and buying things which prohibit our contentment and stress our bodies, minds, spirits and bank accounts.

So, no matter whether we’re Type A’s, travelers, homebodies, partiers, contemplatives, or a bit of each, here are some ways to stress less and rejoice more:

  • Begin with the end in mind. During our prayer and meditation time, we can consider our schedules and what will most renew our spirits.  This includes determining who’s most important to us.  A beloved aged relative who affirms our purpose or an ill BFF who needs a boost gets priority over another cocktail party of vacuous conversation.
  • When gathered with a mixed group of varying beliefs and opinions, we can strive to listen more and persuade less. Remember: A person convinced against his/her will is of the same opinion still.  So, we can choose to gently disengage.  When someone, especially a loved one, wants to debate, we can say something such as: “I love you.  Let’s agree to disagree on this one.”  Then we can change the topic to something neutral, such as shared love of a sports team or our fondness for sweet potatoes.
  • If, for whatever reason, we can’t be physically present with loved ones, we can still call or video conference. Schedule a specific time of 20 minutes or more to connect and share.
  • Limit the highlight reels on social media so we enjoy ourselves without comparing our holiday to someone else’s.
  • Remember: Happiness occurs on a scale. This includes feeling calm, content, peaceful, relaxed and/or rested.
  • Remember also: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are days on a calendar. Their true purpose isn’t for overdoing, overeating or overspending, but for celebrating rich harvests, welcoming new life, and setting intentions for greater possibilities.  When we maintain this perspective, we often feel more grateful for what we have.
  • And, of course, consider eating pie for breakfast.

Happy Thanksgiving, Blessed Readers!

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

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.

Pick Up Your Mat

Having faith in God — and in ourselves — can be a continual challenge.  Travelling faithfully requires that we flow with life, guided by our inner vision even as we heed activity in the outer world.

No matter what may occur in our lives, faith in God and God’s power and presence within us always leads the way.  Though sometimes, we get it backwards.  As in the story of the man Jesus meets at the pool of Bethesda {See John 5:1-9}.

At the pool, many ill people — blind, crippled, paralyzed — wait for an Angel of the Lord to stir the water at certain seasons.  Those who step into the water are healed.  One man, an invalid, has waited by the pool for 38 years (mystically, 38 can represent spiritual discernment).

When Jesus sees the man waiting, he asks: “Do you want to get well?”

At this point, the man doesn’t know who Jesus is.  He replies: “Sir, I have no one to help me into pool when the water is stirred. While I’m trying to get in, someone else goes ahead of me.”

Then Jesus says to him: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”  At once, the man is cured; he picks up his mat and walks.  Because he hears Jesus tell him that he can!

Sometimes we need to wait for assistance.  And sometimes we need to lift ourselves up and move, of our own accord.  Even when we’ve been previously blinded by anger, crippled by shame or paralyzed by fear.

Sometimes we wait for someone else to “heal” us, never realizing all the while, that we have the power within us to heal whatever needs healing.  For days, weeks, months, even years, some of us have held false beliefs — in our hearts — that we are somehow broken or unworthy.  We’ve erroneously believed that a power outside of us would one day come along and change our circumstances, instead of understanding that we have all the inner power we need to rise and walk.

When we choose to pick up ourselves and our “mats,” whatever they may be, we align ourselves with God and allow an Angel of the Lord, sometimes called Holy Spirit, room to move.  Without Holy Spirit, we labor, struggle and limit ourselves and others — even though the power and presence of God with us and within us is limitless.  Yet, with Holy Spirit — the thing which stirs the water, our inner well of faith — we’re healed in whatever way we need healing most.

The Truth is: We always have the power to discern whether we want to wait by the pool, attempt to get in the water, or pick ourselves up and move in another direction.  We always have more strategies than we first imagine.  At any moment, we can pick up our mats and walk — as soon as we’re ready to believe that we can.

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

From the Inside Out

Autumn has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere.  A welcome change for some; for others, not so much.  A seasonal change, even when welcome, is still change.

Few of us enjoy change.  Yet, as we mature spiritually (no matter what our calendar age), we realize that change is easier when it occurs from the inside out, as we choose to change ourselves first.

I believe we reach this conclusion after we’ve tried all the other changes, sometimes called “cures.”  You know them if you’ve tried them, Blessed Reader: the Geographic Cure of moving to another city because we’ll have more fun there.  The Re-Decorating Cure when we spend a fortune on new furniture and artwork.  The Diet Cure which requires that we eat pounds and pounds of kale and forsake ice cream forever.  The Divorce Cure because the other person wasn’t “it.”  The New Job Cure because our boss was a jerk and our co-workers were lazy.  The New Car Cure because everyone else has one. The New Friend Cure because none of our old friends really understand or appreciate us.

The Common Denominator is always the same: We are.  And if we don’t change, from the inside out first, none of the “cures” matter.   So, if we truly want to transform our lives, we need to do our own inner work so our outer experiences also reflect those changes.  It’s a simple process, though not always easy.  Because the truth is: We can’t change the past, particular situations, or other people.  Though we can choose to change ourselves, our beliefs and our behavior.

Transforming from the inside out requires that we be willing to:

  • Remove our hands from the Universal Steering Wheel, take our seat, fasten our seat belt and the leave the “driving” to God;
  • Put on our own oxygen mask first, which includes our daily time for prayer, meditation and self-care;
  • Withstand stillness, silence and “delays”;
  • Reconsider our opinions, as well as our limitations, and continually surrender them, especially if they once worked, but no longer do;
  • Open our minds, hearts, ears and eyes so we know which messages are ours and which are someone else’s;
  • Release unhealthy behaviors, habits and relationships;
  • Recognize that we may never know all the sides of a story;
  • Acknowledge that sometimes our perspective is limited;
  • Accept – even if we don’t like it – that some people won’t understand our transformation and will belittle us, condemn us, or leave us.
  • Leave something for tomorrow, so we can sleep peacefully tonight;
  • Take time to relax and enjoy laughter, hugs, raindrops, snowflakes, moon glow, sunshine, love and delicacies which come in abundant ways.
  • Remember that time on this earthly plane is limited — and we get to choose how we want to live it.

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

Surrender — And Succeed

Sometimes, on our journeys of faith, we reach a juncture with jagged cliffs or steep drops.  If our goal is to reach the other side, whichever side that is, we need to dive or leap.  Either way, we need to let go and fully surrender ourselves and all which was, as we trust in God.

This kind of spiritual, transformational surrender is one of life’s greatest challenges.  When we reach whatever our precipice is, it’s usually because something in life isn’t cooperating with us, and all our personal efforts have failed to create fulfilling change.

As we scan the horizon, we can remember: We have all the inner resources we need to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.  These include our powers of intuition and discernment which help us determine how we want to live.  They also allow us to surrender ourselves and our limited vision to God Vision, something more awesome than what we already see.

While surrender often is considered an admission of defeat, it can be a powerful, positive, life-affirming act.  As Richard and Mary-Alice Jafolla, former directors of Silent Unity suggest: When we surrender (also called letting go and letting God), we release our doubts and fears about outcome.  We shift from stagnating in a problem and make way for growth and transformation to occur.

When we surrender, we remember: We can change ourselves and our beliefs.  We also remember: We can’t change other people.  And, especially, we can’t change God.  Which means that no amount of bargaining, begging, crying, pleading or yelling will work.  Neither will shopping lists of everything we want and everything we don’t.

No matter what our situation, we can remember: God is Unconditional Love, Ever-Abiding Grace and Infinite Compassion.  God is not a short-order cook.  Which means, sometimes, things happen in divine ways, not our ways.  It also means that sometimes we believe we want our eggs sunny-side up, but they come scrambled.

That’s when we can choose whether we’ll fight for our way — or whether we’ll surrender to God’s.  Because divine outcome occurs either way.  And when we choose to surrender, life becomes much easier.

Furthermore, in surrender, we realize: Surrender isn’t quitting or sacrificing.  And letting go doesn’t mean giving up.  It means we cooperate with life — from a spiritual perspective.  Rather than staying stuck, we trust in divine outcome, even if we don’t know what that is.  We release our anxiety about results and stop forcing our will on things. We choose to shift our perspective and give the situation to God, remembering that God can only do for us what we allow God to do through us.  Then, we discover the best answers, ideas, solutions, places and companions we need for our ultimate well-being.

Remember Blessed Reader: The choice is always ours.  We can do it our way and stay stuck.  Or we can surrender to God’s Way — and succeed.

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

No More Same Old, Same Old

Years ago I worked with a Negative Nell who continually whined and complained.  Often, my co-workers and I heard her mutter, “SSDD [Same Sh**, Different Day].”  We rarely escaped a meeting without her bemoaning her lot in life and her railing against God for all the misfortunes she faced.  No matter what any of us said or did to encourage or support her, we heard the same thing: “Why bother?  It’s always the same old, same old.”

Perhaps, Blessed Reader, you know the type: Someone who not only can’t see the glass half full, but can’t even see the glass.  Who believes that God is some kind of wicked tyrant or capricious ruler, condemning them to a life of woe and suffering.  Who wants everyone and everything else to change, but who doesn’t know how and/or isn’t willing to think or behave differently.

As a pastor, I realize: Some people haven’t yet heard the message that on this spiritual journey we call our lives, we have numerous, divine opportunities for transformation.  These people don’t yet know that God isn’t a master puppeteer in the sky pulling our strings, giving us more than we can handle or doling out gifts to a favored few.

I want them to know this instead: God is Divine Creator of all things, including us.  God is Ever-Abiding Grace, Infinite Compassion and Unconditional Love, everywhere, all the time.  Therefore, we are divine creations, born with all the faith, strength and wisdom we’ll ever need within us to live glorious lives.

Furthermore, as divine creations, we’re also free agents, which means we have free will to align ourselves with God, to choose who we’ll be, what we want, where we’re going and what we’ll do.  So, no matter what we may have been, thought, done, or believed before, we have the power to transform our lives.  Especially if any of our self-talk sounds like the same old, same old.

The truth is: We can choose to transform ourselves, because transformation begins with us.  Only when we choose to change ourselves and do “it” differently, whatever the “it” is, do we reach the place where transformation is possible.

Rather than believe that we’re automatons which must react in the same old ways, as if we run on only one internal program, we can delete the self-defeating, life-draining mantras and re-wire our thinking and adjust our behavior.  Inevitably, though sometimes slowly, this allows us to alter our circumstances and enjoy new, more enriching outcomes and experiences.

Ultimately, transformation requires trust; first in God, then in ourselves.  And, as we discern and travel our faithful life journeys, we discover wondrous things are unfolding through us and for us, one sacred step at a time.

 

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