Posted in Different Scriptures, Spoken Word

Ecclesiastes 5:1-20

I come before You, aware of my faults
Aware of my penchant for error
I know that being unclean in Your presence
Is enough to fill me with terror

I look on my moments of worship
So quick to fill silence with noise
It seems a common self-defense
The shame of my sin oft’ deploys

Yet here I’ve permission for silence
As You’ve also silenced my shame
The accuser unable to point a finger
You’ve covered me with Your own Name

For You are the source of all justice
In You are all wrong things made right
Here as I come and be silent, Lord
Grant me to see with Your sight

It is good to live today all for You
Laboring not for tomorrow, but more
Aware of the context eternity brings
Knowing Your Love is assured

The gift of enjoyment You offer
Joy that integrates all with your Way
Grace that invites New foundation
Not for past, or for future, but Today

Posted in Different Books, Different Scriptures

Promoting Relationship…

As a pastor, I am always wanting to grow in my understanding of relationships. The psychology, sociology, and neurology that go into the ways we relate to one another, ourselves, and even the ways we pursue a relationship with God are of significant value.

Presently, that means I’m reading a book called “Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections”. One of the technology books I read with our older daughters this past year talked about the importance of face to face interactions in terms of building healthy relationships. It ranked the strength of communication styles for building a deepened connection, and texting (a primary form of communication for most of us) was toward the bottom, under phone calls, video chats (another primary form under COVID), and of course the number one – face to face, in person, conversation.

With such a low amount of connecting in person during the past couple of years, it’s no wonder that the worlds of psychology, sociology, and neurology are paying attention also, and figuring out how to help people understand (and of course, I realize, capitalize on this moment for profit-making also). Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, you’ve experienced loneliness during the past couple of years, and if their research for human relationships holds similar for our relationship with God (my guess is, there are definitely connections), you might be feeling a bit disconnected from the presence of God as well.

One of the basic premises of the book, is that their research shows a fundamental part of building more meaningful connections is this element called “Attunement”. They break it down into four components: “relaxed awareness, listening, understanding, and mutual responsiveness.” The book goes into exploring these components, offering ways to become more aware, research to understand & improve each area, and exercises they have found to be helpful. Of course, it’s written for all people, and not a “religious” book. You won’t find them suggesting meditation on scripture, quiet breath-prayer/prayer walks, cultivating an awareness of God’s presence, etc. But they still offer some helpful insight, which can be adapted as needed.

Of particular note neurologically, is the research on how the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system responds to stress by releasing hormones, “including cortisol (often considered the body’s main stress hormone)”. The authors note that “experiments conducted at McGill University have shown that a stress response involving cortisol release can block a person’s emotional empathy for another person.” As we look at our culture today, especially the promotion of anxiety and stress by those who profit from our attention, we can easily see one of their conclusions then: “modern human culture has brought us a variety of long-term worries and stresses, and chronic activation of our bodies’ stress systems can have negative effects on our physical health, as Sapolsky points out, and can also have negative effects on our ability to tune in and connect to each other. This continual activation of the stress systems can promote a vicious cycle as stress increases a sense of disconnection; and being isolated and disconnected, in turn, increases stress.”

As a pastor, it helps to be aware that people are coming to church, and to life in general, with a decreased ability to form or participate in relationships with empathy. It also helps me to understand that simply praying “Lord, help us all have decreased levels of cortisol.” is not a faithful response to the understanding God has given us about how we’ve been created. As the authors write, “the activity of the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) can reduce the activity of the HPA system.”

So what can I do to help activate and strengthen the activity of the PNS?  Dr. Stephen W. Porges stresses the importance of the “polyvagal theory”, as his research has found that the vagus nerve (which runs from our brain stem down into the abdomen, and is a major nerve of the PNS) can be calmed purposefully in several ways (here are some examples). One of the easiest ways, as we stand in the front of our churches in a moment of prayer or worship, aware of such things – is to slow our speech, model deep breaths, and even invite our people to pay attention to their own breathing. To pause and take a deep breath not only allows us to prayerfully consider what words to say next, it is also allowing a holy pause which can allow our PNS to wash our minds with responses that reduce cortisol and raise levels of oxytocin (a “neuropeptide involved in social bonding…including feelings of trust, generosity, empathy, and understanding.”)

It also means, as I encourage people young and old to spend personal time with God – I should emphasize that such time with God will be deepened by awareness of our breathing and body. It’s not as helpful to “dip in and out” of a 5 minute devotional, forcing God to connect in the time we give Him. We will improve and deepen our moments with God by finding ways to relax, de-stress, and become more physically attuned to our own emotional state as we move into His presence.

May you take a moment to breathe slow today, finding ways to turn away from the anxieties and stresses (even legitimate ones), knowing that purposefully embracing patterns of Sabbath and physical peace allow our relationships with others, with ourselves, and even with God to flourish in new and deeper ways…

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.’ – Jesus (Matthew 11:28)

Posted in Different Scriptures

Zacchaeus: The Sequel

When the loving presence of God arrives in Jesus, it transforms our lives with a Love-Driven Justice that bears fruit for generations, for the sake of others…

I want to imagine a story we’ve never read before (because I wrote it recently). It’s a story of some early Christians visiting the city of Jericho many years after Jesus had been resurrected and gone to be with the Father. They heard there was a ministry there that needed to be encouraged, and so they made arrangements to visit and see what God was stirring in that place.

As they arrived in town, they began simply by asking where they might find the leaders of a movement known as “Balm from Balsam”.  Balsam was a very expensive product produced mainly there in Jericho, and it was a ministry that helped to ensure that those people profiting from the sale of Balsam gave support to workers who previously hadn’t many rights.  It was widely known that the Balsam trees in the area of Jericho produced a large amount of profit – most of which was taken by Rome, but some of which also lined the pockets of powerful people in the Jericho area.  The slaves who were forced into labor to extract and preserve the balsam juices and wood, however, often lived in horrible conditions, and were seen simply as tools to attain more product.  

The story was, years ago there was a man named Zacchaeus who had his life dramatically changed when Jesus came to visit his house.  Followers of Jesus had heard the story over and over again, and they had seen it in the lives of others, but the story of Zacchaeus had always been a bit of a mystery beyond the day Jesus shared a meal with him.  Different versions of the story existed, but they all seemed to agree – the heart of Zacchaeus was dramatically changed after that visit.  Zacchaeus gave away more than half of all his possessions and finances – paying back all of the people he had defrauded over the years, 4 times whatever he had taken from them.  This was not a simple matter, as he had been a meticulous record-keeper. He knew exactly how much he had overcharged so many people, and how his entire household had benefited from the money that had been taken.  

The story goes that the Jews in that area already hated him for overcharging taxes all of these years – and when he went around town handing out money, they began to actually fear him.  He was accused of being possessed by a demon, since it was the only way some people could make sense of such a dramatic change, and a seeming disregard for his own financial state.

Not only that, but Rome began to want Zacchaeus dead as well.  He’d been charged with treason over and over again, but somehow continued to slip through their grasp.  As soon as he began to charge people honestly for their taxes, Rome began collecting less and less money from the region of Jericho.  He demanded that all of the tax collectors who served under him be honest in their dealings, and he would check their records to make sure no one was being unfairly treated or oppressed.  He found one tax collector under him who continued to line his own pockets by over-charging people – and fired the man from his position. That man went over his head to Rome, and came back declaring that Rome had put him in charge now as the new chief tax collector for the area.

After he lost his position, Zacchaeus offered himself as a sort of “financial advisor” still, helping people to calculate what they should owe the empire, and stirring all kinds of controversy when he helped people stand up and demand financial transparency and accountability. After a while, he and his family went into hiding, and it was rumored they were traveling to share the gospel. But after years, when this new movement, protecting and promoting fair wages for Balsam workers started, people began to wonder if some son or grandson of Zacchaeus had returned to Jericho. The people who helped to run it were so meticulous in their record keeping, it certainly sounded like the man himself was somehow returned.

Sure enough, after a few conversations with other trusted Jesus-followers, they located the grandson of Zacchaeus.  He was sitting at a desk, and in front of him were ledgers of the names of local workers in the Balsam industry.  He explained that he begins each new day by praying for these workers by name – because they are usually treated as if their name doesn’t even matter.  He makes note of whether they have been baptized as a follower of Jesus yet, and prays for opportunities to share about Jesus with them.  He then devotes himself to working and serving their interests however he can.  When the visiting followers of Jesus  asked him why he works so hard to do such work each day, he simply told them the story he’d heard of his grandfather many years ago…

Luke 19:1-10

As we look at the story of Zacchaeus, we find a bit of a mystery. It’s hard to put a finger on when or how the heart of Zacchaeus was transformed. We don’t see an obvious gospel presentation. There was no altar call. There was no physical blindness or lameness, and then a healing that transformed his heart. We simply move from Zacchaeus in a tree, curious to know more; to Jesus welcomed as a guest in his house, to Zacchaeus declaring a transformation of heart by his tangible responses of repentance.

Was it simply the fact that welcoming the presence of such LOVE is enough to bring New Life?  Was the indwelling presence of Jesus that came to break bread – transformational in ways that made Zacchaeus a completely New Creation – even before knowing all the truths and vocabulary to describe what had happened?  

Is it possible that, even if you aren’t sure who Jesus is – inviting the presence of His Love into your home and life can bring transformation to your understanding of self, of God, and your ability to Love others in a new and Just way?

Is it possible that simply bearing the loving presence of Jesus in the midst of your family, your friends, your neighborhood, and wherever your day takes you – is enough to transform those environments for His glory?

The Loving presence of God in Jesus inherently brings redemptive righteousness (rightness/justice). Will we notice Jesus today, looking into our eyes, inviting us to welcome Him into new areas of our lives?