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).

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.

Growing All The Time

Sometimes, as we take the first small steps forward, plant the first seeds of change into our lives, we wonder whether we’re getting anywhere or accomplishing anything.  We know that we’re “supposed” to grow; yet when we seek signs outside ourselves, the landscape still appears barren.

I believe that Jesus understood our continual desire to both plant and grow.  In the “Parable of the Growing Seed” [Mark 4:26-29], which some Bible scholars believe is an Earth parable, Jesus explains:

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he[/she] does not know how.  Earth produces of itself; first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  And when the grain is ripe, at once he[/she] goes in with a sickle, because the harvest has come.

As appropriate for his 1st century agrarian culture, Jesus uses the analogy of seeds and Earth to reveal how transformation occurs, within the Earth — and — within us.  He reminds us that once we choose to plant, we also choose to trust that our harvest will unfold before us, little by little, one step at a time.

Our understanding and acceptance of this is tremendously liberating as we remember: Seeds produce as is their nature — and so do we.  We are divinely created by God, Divine Creator of all things, to grow and thrive.  And when we remember that we can grow all the time, we also can choose to rise above and grow beyond daunting challenges.

The humblest farmers admit that they don’t completely understand how crops grow, although they understand their role: They nurture growth; they don’t force it.  This awareness reminds us to remain faithful throughout the process, whatever our process is, and trust in divine outcome, especially if we want to steer the whole Universe to make something happen before its time.

It also reminds us that crops grow in their time, which isn’t always ours.  Because the truth is: It isn’t our job to know how, when or where. That’s God’s job.  So on the way, we do what we can:

  • Basking in the sunshine and/or resting in the moon glow of prayer, meditation, reflection and contemplation.
  • Nourishing ourselves with healthy foods and yummy treats; a peaceful night’s rest; enjoyable exercise; fun, laughter and play.
  • Watering with encouraging words and loving deeds from those who most appreciate, honor, support and value our growth process.
  • Nurturing with gratitude for each day’s blessings.
  • Rejoicing in even the smallest sprouts and tiniest buds.

As we continue on our way, we begin to notice the depths of our innate faith, strength and wisdom.  Then we discover how perfectly our road is unfolding before us, as we allow God’s divine power and presence to lead the way.

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

Faith and Expectation

“To expect the good, to expect answer to our prayers — this we think of as faith.  The other half of expecting is waiting, and we do not often associate waiting with faith.  In fact, if we pray with great faith and expectation and our answer does not come immediately, if we have to wait, we may think that we have failed, that our faith has failed.  In our despair we may even think that God has failed. . . .

“Expecting and waiting: both are forms of faith.  It takes faith to expect answers to prayer, to expect healing in the midst of pain, to expect guidance when darkness envelopes us, to expect peace when turmoil prevails, to expect success though we have heretofore failed.

“It takes faith to expect answers to prayer, it takes faith to wait for the results that we have the faith to believe are forthcoming. . . .

“When Jesus compared faith to a grain of mustard, He was showing us that our expectation can far surpass the present smallness of that in which we place our faith.  An acorn is a small seed, but ‘lo! the mighty oak.’”

— Martha Smock

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.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Another Valentine’s season is here, having begun sometime after New Year’s, as retailers lead us from one holiday to another, like rest stops on the highway of life.  At this time of year, we’re urged to know love as an FTD bouquet, a kiss which begins with “k,” a rich meal at an overpriced restaurant with staff too stressed to nurture us as we deserve, or an abundance of sweets which become cloying after one too many bites.

For some, that’s Valentine’s Day every year.  For others, Valentine’s Day is just another day to live through: the same every year, familiar and consistent, though rarely warm and comforting, as we imagine love is truly meant to be.

In certain spiritual circles, people speak of love as if it were a magic elixir able to heal every hurt at the wave of a wand. As a pastor, I’ve witnessed its effects: The man on his death bed who choked back tears when he admitted he couldn’t wait to leave his nagging wife and see his childhood sweetheart, who died years before.  Or the young woman with ashy hair, who repeatedly yanked her sleeve over a large, purple bruise on her arm, as she tried, in trembling tones, to justify her boyfriend’s unnecessarily strong grip.  Or the children in faded clothes who smelled of ashes and perspiration, who stared longingly at another’s chocolate birthday cake.  When I asked whether they wanted a piece, they nodded, wide-eyed, a glow brightening otherwise distant gazes.  Or the constant verbal barrage of anger, disgust and loathing some people shout at those they profess to love, saying things like, “I’m doing this for your own good, because I love you,” when the recipient of such vitriol feels anything but.

With all the talk of love, some people forget that love is a verb, an action, as much as an emotion, feeling or thought.  Sometimes, love is presence.  Perhaps we know people who rarely say, “I love you,” though when we’re with them, we feel their love flowing deep inside us, as an energy which nourishes and uplifts us.   They delight in our company because of who we are, not because of what we do or have.  They see us as truly worthy of love, and we feel it.

Gospel writers Mark (1:9-11), Matthew (3:13-17), and Luke (3:21-22) relate that kind of love in the story of Jesus’s baptism, when a dove, a symbol of love, alights upon him and God declares: “You are my beloved child, in whom I delight.”  In that moment, Jesus is assured of God’s enduring, unconditional love, infinite compassion and ever-abiding grace.  For the rest of his life, Jesus proclaims and offers that gift to everyone, wherever he goes.

This Valentine’s Day, Blessed Reader, no matter what your spiritual upbringing or beliefs, remember: You are God’s beloved, a delight to behold, and a blessing to love.

© 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.

Uncommon Faith

We’ve entered the season of Advent, a slow, quiet, dark time which prepares us for the birth — or awakening — of the Christ Presence.  Advent, from the Latin adventus, meaning arrival, invites us to prepare for a celebration unlike most others.  And, as with all celebrations, whether grand and glorious or simple and elegant, we can choose to take the calm, careful, diligent, faithful steps necessary to create a delightful experience for ourselves and any others sharing in the festivities.

As we prepare, we’re asked to believe in a divine outcome, to remain faithful that the celebration will be both wondrous and joyous, even when outer appearances suggest that the outcome will be anything but.  In the darkness of the season, we’re invited to look beyond appearances.  To know that in darkness there also is seeing.  To realize that as we adjust our sight, we also expand our vision.

In this season, perhaps more than others, we’re encouraged to remain faithful, even when we feel discouraged and doubtful.  We’re reminded to take another plunge into the depths of our inner well of faith, remembering that all the faith we ever need already is within us.

As we do, we can contemplate the words of Fred Gailey, the attorney who defends Kris Kringle in Valentine Davies’s delightful and uplifting holiday classic, “Miracle on 34th Street”:

Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.

That kind of faith is uncommon in most people: To believe when our five physical senses and our worldly common sense says: “Can’t happen.  No way.  Impossible.”  The true faith, the faith of the one who will be born in a manger, is the kind of uncommon faith so many of us desire.  It is the deep, abiding faith which sees beyond appearances, seizes opportunities, embraces possibilities, plans glorious celebrations on a shoestring and anticipates divine outcome.

Uncommon faith knows and trusts that a magnificent future is unfolding, even without the coming attractions.  Uncommon faith relinquishes control and ceases giving God directions.  Uncommon faith does nothing without putting God first and knowing God as unconditional love, infinite compassion and ever-abiding grace.  Uncommon faith sees clearly in darkness.  Uncommon faith understands that God’s immense power and presence can transform even the smallest things, the most unlikely people, and the most hopeless circumstances.

Especially, during this season, uncommon faith remembers what God has done before and trusts in what God continues doing.  We already know how the story ends: a baby, a messenger of uncommon faith, peace, love and joy is to be born in a manger, surrounded by his parents, shepherds, wise folk, angels, and a shining star.

And, with wonder, awe and uncommon faith, we prepare for the celebration — and we believe.

© 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.