2018-2-11, “Mountain Climbing”

“Mountain Climbing”
A meditation based on Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV)
February 11, 2018
Rev. Victoria Freiheit
This is the day in the Christian year set aside for mountain climbing—I’ll bet you didn’t
know that. This is the day we set aside to climb Mount Sinai with Moses and the
Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and three of his disciples. Are there any
mountain climbers in the congregation today? Many people are into mountain
climbing and claim it is quite exhilarating. Other, however, have a fear of heights and
say, “I wouldn’t go mountain-climbing for love nor money.”
Willie and I recently read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” His description of
walking the Appalachian Trail left us wondering why anyone would do it. After only a
couple of days he compares hiking with a 40-pound pack to the time you were at the
zoo and little Jimmy was too tired to walk so you put him up on your shoulders. For a
couple of minutes it is actually fun—you pretend like you are going to tip him off, or
you walk his head toward some low-lying object before veering off at the last instant.
But then, little Jimmy starts getting heavy. You feel a twinge in your neck, a
tightening between your shoulder blades, and the sensation seeps and spreads until it
is decidedly uncomfortable, and you announce to little Jimmy that you’re going to
have to put him down for awhile. The 40-lb. pack is like two little Jimmys, but inert. I
remember when I was going down the Grand Canyon with the Sierra Club, and I
practiced with every heavy thing I could think of in my backpack. When I would get
back to the car after a hour or so of practice, I’d lift that pack off and I felt like I could
fly—that burden off my back was wonderful.
People go mountain climbing all the time—even higher than the Appalachians.
Leonardo Diaz was climbing at 12,000 feet in the Andes when got stranded in a
blizzard near the top. True story—he tried to call out , but couldn’t as he had already
used up all his prepaid minutes on his cell phone. But he was saved two hours later
when his cell phone company called him to ask if he would like to buy some more
prepaid minutes. “It was the work of angels,” he said–he was rescued 7 hours later.
Few scenes are more dramatic in the Bible than the one about Moses’ journey to the
mountain where he received the Ten Commandments. The writer of Exodus says it
like this: “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.
The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on
the seventh day God called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the
glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the
people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was
on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” 60 years ago Cecil B. DeMille’s 10
Commandments movie was pretty graphic. But, I wonder what a modern film-maker
could do with that scene, given all the special effects that film-makers use today.
Many years later Moses makes another appearance on another mountain. It is the
Mount of Transfiguration. This time it is Jesus who is mountain climbing. He takes
with him Peter, James and his brother John. When they get to the top of the
mountain the Gospel of Mark tells us “that Jesus was transfigured before them. And
his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And
there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three
dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say
for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them and from the cloud there
came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly, when they
looked around, they saw no one with them any move, but only Jesus. As they were
coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen,
until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
I’ll bet, in all your mountain-climbing days, you never had an experience quite like this.
Yes, I know, you have had mountain-top experiences—so have I. Maybe even not on
a mountain-top, but at the beach, or at a sunset, or at a time of deep prayer while
driving in the car on a lonely road. Those times were times of worship for you, for me.
The Transfiguration was a time of worship. Mark tells us that the disciples were
terrified. And why not? They had known Jesus as their good buddy, their rabbi, their
teacher. Suddenly they discovered they hadn’t even scratched the surface of who
Jesus is. They were standing in the presence of God, and did not know what to say,
for they were terrified. I imagine this was particularly hard for Peter, as he usually had
something to say about everything. And Peter doesn’t disappoint this time either—he
said that whole thing about the three dwellings.
In the Bible it says that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Do you
think it means that we should be cowering in fear? I think fear, in this case, is more of
a feeling of awe, of knowing that we may be made in the image of God, but we are
not God. And never will be. As humans, we can do wondrous things—we can land
on the moon, build dams to hold back millions of gallons of water, communicate with
each other across the world in seconds. But we are not God. And never will be.
We can go up a mountain and have a wonderful experience. We may even want to
build something on that mountain to commemorate our experience. And if we are
wise, we will worship God on that mountaintop. The fear of the Lord is when we know
we are so powerfully in God’s presence that we are awed, and we feel unworthy.
Discovering true worship is one of the great needs that each of us has whether we
are conscious of it or not.
I’ll tell you a story about worship. Craig Larson remembers when “the world watched
as three gray whales were icebound off Point Barrow, Alaska. Under the ice, they
floated, battered and bloody, gasping for breath at a hole in the ice. Their only hope:
somehow to be transported five miles past the ice pack to the open sea. Rescuers
began cutting a string of holes for them to breathe—about 20 yards apart in the sixinch-
thick ice.”
Can’t you just visualize those three whales seeing light and going toward it to breathe,
over and over again, mile after mile. One didn’t make it. But the whales Puto and
Siku swam to freedom with the help of the Russian icebreakers. In a way, Craig
Larson reminds us, “worship is like a string of breathing holes that God provides
God’s people. Battered and bruised in a world frozen over with greed, selfishness,
and hatred, we rise for air in church, a place to breathe again, to be loved and
encouraged, until that day when the Lord shatters forever that ice cap.” What is your
personal experience of breathing feely in church, like nowhere else you have ever
been? What is your experience of worship, of awe, of the fear of the Lord?
The Transfiguration was not only a time of worship, it was a time of discovery. A
time of discovery for the disciples, when they had a whole new understanding of who
Jesus is. He had been their teacher, their friend, their inspiration. But nothing could
have prepared them for this experience on the mountain. You know that it is always
difficult to judge a person by a casual relationship with them. People can fool you.
An illustration of this is about a businessman who checked into a fancy hotel in a big
city. The next morning, the maid came to clean his room. He was brusque, almost
unkind with her. He felt justified, after all, he was well paid and successful; and she
was just the maid—poorly educated, poorly paid—a lowly hotel maid. What he didn’t
know was that this maid spoke five languages. She had her Ph.D. She had friends
back in her home country who were outstanding people in government and the arts.
But she was forced to flee her country and seek asylum in this land. And the only
place she could find employment was as a maid in this hotel. This businessman, who
was treating her like a mere object, could not touch her intellect or her abilities. We
make superficial judgments about people without knowing the whole story. The
disciples were still learning who Jesus was. They were on the mountain with their
friend Jesus, but amazingly also with them was Moses and Elijah. Then they heard,
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” This was a time of discovery for them.
The three disciples were confronted by Christ’s deity. They knew they were on holy
ground. It was a time of discovery and a time of worship. And one thing more: it was
a time of defining who they were and what they were all about. Peter wanted to
build three dwellings, one for Christ, one for Moses and one for Elijah, and stay there
on the mountain. We can appreciate that. What a grand experience—a tough act to
follow, as they say. Who would wish for the madness of the world after being in the
splendor of the divine presence?
When I first met Willie he told me about a retreat he went on in the mountains north of
Los Angeles. It was a silent retreat in a monastery. He said how hard it was to come
down to the city and be in the traffic, the noise, the workaday world of conflict–major
and minor. He wanted to turn around and go back up the mountain.
You and I face the same temptation. We might prefer to spend all our time here in the
house of God where we are loved and where we feel the assurance that comes from
faith in God. But that is not who we are and it is not what we are called to do. Jesus
led the disciples back off the mountain and into a life of service—a service of teaching
and healing and showing compassion for all people.
It is easy to delude ourselves that by coming to worship once a week, we have
fulfilled our commitment to Christ. Worship is where we prepare ourselves for service
outside these walls. In 2001, Allison Levine led the first all-woman team to climb Mt.
Everest. The reason Allison is such an inspiring leader is that for most of her life she
was unable to take on physical challenges. She was born with a heart defect. She
never played sports because any exertion would cause her heart to jump out of its
regular rhythm. But she became a dedicated athlete after surgery at the age of 30
when they repaired that heart defect.
Allison agreed to lead the Mt. Everest expedition on one condition, that it be a fundraiser
for good causes, like cancer research or building girls’ schools in Nepal. She
didn’t want to climb Mt. Everest for her own or the team’s glory; she wanted to give
back to the less fortunate. She said, “What’s the point of taking risks if nothing
changes on the earth below.”
I couldn’t have said it better. What’s the use of climbing mountains if when we come
down we are still the self-absorbed jerks as we were when we went up? Jesus is calling
us to leave this worship service committed to living a life of service. He does not
call us to come out of the world, but to serve the world even as he served the world.
An old story tells of a Congregational man who visited a Quaker meeting. People
were sitting in silence. He whispered to the person next to him, “When will the service
start?” The person replied, “After the meeting is over.” The time spent on the
mountain was a time of discovery for the disciples. It was also a time of worship—a
time of meeting God. After the meeting was over though, it was time for the service to
begin–as it is with us. Our time of worship is nearly over. Let the service begin.

2018-2-18 “Praying on Your Path”

“Praying on Your Path”

A meditation about Walking Prayer based on Psalm 25

February 18, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   The book of psalms is the Bible’s songbook, and it is also the Bible’s prayer book.  A full 150 prayers make up the psalms, and each one is an honest, forthright, sometimes even blunt presentation of the person’s real feelings, without filter.  At one point, the person praying is up and optimistic, at another, down and ready to die.  At another point, the one praying commends God for being present to all and for all, and gushes about God’s love…and in the next prayer, calls on God to murder their enemies.  Spend a few minutes sometime, just thumbing through the psalms, and you’ll see such a wide span of human emotion.

                   So, you can imagine, there is little consistency in this book of prayers, except that the one doing the praying is brutally honest in his or her outlook, and consequently, also raw and open about what he or she expects and wants God to do.  That honesty in prayer is consistent throughout the 150 psalms, and that, friends, is why I’ve chosen for us to dive into them during this season of Lent. 

                   Lent is, by nature, a more reflective 6 weeks in the church year.  A time when we prepare ourselves for the celebration of the return of life that comes with Easter’s empty tomb.  For these next six weeks, we are invited to take a bit of a pause, not from our regular lives, but a pause that refreshes our spirits.  The pause I’m inviting you into is one of prayer.  Each week, in worship, using a particular psalm as our guide, I’ll teach you a form of prayer that you can use in the coming week.  And so, together, our prayers throughout Lent can be both a learning and a way to deepen our relationship with the Divine.  A pause, if you will, that hopefully refreshes you!

                   Today, we learn a form of prayer that comes right out of the psalm we read earlier…Psalm 25.  Look at it again in the back of the black hymnal, page 635.  This particular prayer of the psalmist is motivated by shame—you can see that in the first few verses.  He or she has been shamed, yet trusts in God, and wants his or her enemies to feel the same level of pain and shame.  In other words, “God, get on it!  Shame them for me!”  That’s not the prayer we’ll practice!  That’s just the psalmist’s motivation. 

                   The prayer that wraps itself around this particular life situation is a prayer that seeks God’s pathways, and acknowledges that these pathways of God intertwine with our own.  Look at verse 4.  The psalmist prays, “Make me to know your ways, teach me your paths…” And for the next several verses, we hear the psalmist’s deep faith that God is a God of gentle guidance, God is a God of loving forgiveness, God is a God who teaches, and who leads, and who guides, no matter how many times you stray or how far off the path you go.  God is a God who has a short memory for your sins, and whose steadfast love for you is forever.  This the psalmist knows, and this the psalmist prays. 

                   Toward the end of the prayer, in verses 9 and 10, the psalmist returns to the metaphor of pathway, claiming once again that God leads and God’s paths are all of steadfast love and faithfulness.  Now hear this.  This part of the prayer is talking about God, not you, not the psalmist.  God is steadfast love…always…  God is faithful…always…  We tend to put an “if-then” sort of disclaimer on God’s love, by combining with God’s love the psalmist’s own fears that are confessed in the last line.  The psalmist prays there, “All the paths of God are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep God’s covenant and God’s decrees…”  Really?  God’s love is not determined by whether or not we do the right thing.  We don’t control God’s love or God’s faithfulness.  God is always loving.  God is always faithful.  Verse after verse and story after story confirm that truth.  Our behavior—good or bad—doesn’t either earn us points in the bank of God’s love and favor, nor does it detract from God’s love for us.  So that last line, it seems to me, is the psalmist returning to his or her motivation for the prayer in the first place…and that is the motivation of shame. 

                   The psalmist wants God’s love to be controlled by human behavior, precisely so that he or she can feel it and the enemies cannot.  That’s part of being human…to want vengeance and to want God on our side…especially when we’re hurting.  Apart from this shame that motivates the psalmist in the first place, we see in this psalm prayer the unfolding of a pathway.  Really, it’s two pathways: our and God’s.  And this metaphor of pathway provides the space for our first prayer teaching. 

                   This form of prayer is called walking prayer.  In some traditions, it is called walking meditation.  I first learned it in a Christian context, and then the teaching deepened for me through a Buddhist teacher called Thich Nhat Hanh.  Walking prayer is, as its name suggests…a prayer we repeat while walking.  It’s a prayer we create…of just a few words…or it can be one word that repeats as a kind of mantra.  I find it easiest to begin walking prayer by planting my feet firmly on the ground or the sidewalk.  Taking a deep breath.  Closing my eyes and letting my mind wander a bit.  Then I try to notice what images are surfacing.  Is it something from work?  Or home?  Or a relationship with a friend?  Or is it something deeper in…a change in perspective, perhaps?  Or a wrong that needs righting?  Is it some leftover morsel of guilt or shame or remorse that needs attending?  Whatever surfaces as I stand there planted is what I work with in that particular walking prayer. 

                   And then, when I’ve settled on my focus for the walking prayer, I take another moment to form the actual prayer.  It’s never more than a few words, and usually only one word.  For example, if I’ve wronged someone, the one word that becomes my walking prayer might be “forgive…”  If a scene from work or life or friendships emerges for focus, I might settle on a walking prayer of “Please help me, show me a way forward…”  Then I begin walking.  And as I take each step, I repeat a part of that prayer.  It becomes a pattern—walking, praying, walking, praying.  And, usually, after a few minutes, a comfortable pattern emerges.  Sometimes that word or words adjust to something new or different.  I keep going for as long as seems helpful.  I’m very goal oriented, so my goal might be to walk and pray for 20 minutes…or to walk and pray for five blocks…or to walk and pray from my desk to the church kitchen…  What I find, when I’m practicing this walking prayer, is that my pace slows, and my mind clears, and I feel refreshed at the end of it, no matter how long the prayer ends up being. 

                   Years ago, I was teaching walking prayer and there was a very wise person in a wheelchair in the group.  She lit up as she said, “Oh, I do the same kind of praying…but with cycles of the wheel, rather than steps.”  She was delighted, as I recall, to have a name for what she had developed for her own pathway!  And I believe she called it “wheeling walking prayer.” 

                   Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches about walking meditation in his book, Peace Is Every Step.  And he takes it several steps further.  Not only is this type of prayerful walking helpful to you, as an individual, but he claims, it actually helps the larger circles of humanity as well.  Listen to what he says, as he urges us to acknowledge each day the brand new gift of twenty-four hours. 

“We have the capacity to live in a way that these twenty-four hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others,” he writes.  “Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see.  The question is whether or not we are in touch with it.  We don’t have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky.  We don’t have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child.  Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy…We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available.  We are very good at preparing to live,” writes this Buddhist monk, “but not very good at living.  We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job,          a car, a house, and so on.  But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in [this] present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.  Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity.  We need only be awake, alive in the present moment…Peace is every step…” 


                   Sounds very much like the person who wrote Psalm 25…we are on a pathway, each one of us, each day we are alive.  God is on that pathway with us.  We can’t stay in our rooms, or remain wandering in some wilderness, but we are invited to set out on the paths of God. Frederick Buechner writes, “If you want to know who you are, watch your feet.  Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”  And, my sisters and brothers, when we slow our pace, when we allow ourselves a few moments of mindful prayer as we walk, the wisdom and pathways of God come to us, and through us, to the world we live in.  And so I invite you—no, I challenge you (I double-dog-dare you!)—to bring peace and joy, harmony and comfort—to our hurting world this week, by taking a few mindfully praying steps on your own journey. 


Amen and Blessed Be!

2018-2-4 “Jesus’ Call … Our Call”

“Jesus’ Call…Our Call”

A meditation based on Isaiah 40:21-31;

1 Corinthians 9:16-23; and Mark 1:29-39

February 4, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Look at him go!  In the passage we have just heard, Jesus flits from synagogue to the house of a friend to a deserted place and then on to neighboring towns, all in the span of a day or two.  His activities vary from healing to teaching to praying to proclamation to casting out demons.  If we think our days are busy, just read this passage again to hear about a day in the life of Jesus!  His energy seems boundless, he bounces from activity to activity like the proverbial Tigger, and most amazingly, Jesus seems to keep balance enough to get up in the morning and repeat the hectic pattern.  Imagine: all of this without a smart phone to keep him on track!  Jesus moved where the needs were…he moved quickly and decisively and effectively …this was his call.

                   How did he do all that?  The easy, obvious, “Sunday School” answer is that he, after all, was the Son of God, imbued with special energy and given by God a special purpose.  Such a lofty position carries with it the energy and the resources to complete the job well.  Yet, Jesus himself says later in the gospel record that, though he has done great things—such as healing, teaching, casting out demons,   and the like—be assured, he says, that his followers will do even greater things.  Jesus seems to see his own activity level as a kind of microcosm of what all those called by his name will be doing—and that would include us.  So the most obvious answer to the question of how in the world did Jesus keep going cannot be seen as exclusive to only Jesus.  By his own account, you are called by God to do great things, to be people of intense and meaningful activity, and to somehow keep balance through it all.  So the question of how Jesus did all this, naturally extends to you…how do you fulfill your own call?

                   Along these lines, I think often of the words originally attributed to St. Teresa of Avila

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours;

yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks on the world,

yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good,

and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.” 

Or, in a much abbreviated form, “Wherever We Are, Christ Is.”  And that, my sisters and brothers, is your call.

                   If, in fact and in truth, we are the feet and hands and eyes and body of Christ on earth, how in the world can we keep up?  How can we keep going?  I hear a couple of good responses to that question in the scriptures, both of which boil down to us getting ourselves and our egos out of the way, and inviting God to work through us. 

                   The Prophet Isaiah poetically and rhetorically declares the same:

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard? 

God is everlasting…Creator of the ends of the earth…

God does not faint or grow weary…

[In fact] God gives power to the faint, God strengthens the powerless. 

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;

but all those who wait for God shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.”

                   Years ago, one of my good friends was telling me about some difficulties he was facing in his job.  Against the wishes of the bureaucracy for which he worked, he took a day off in the middle of the week.  Staying at home, he sat in the silence, the waiting space of which Isaiah speaks.  And slowly the painful images of the week that had been draining him, depleting him of energy, slowly those images began to surface and pass across the screen of his mind.  In the sacred space of silence, the images lost their power to disrupt.  And, after a couple of hours, my friend emerged from the waiting, the sacred silence, and he was refreshed for the work ahead.

                   Look again at Jesus in today’s reading, and we’ll see him doing much the same.  Out of the rush of people’s needs and the hectic schedule Jesus is keeping, he arises early in the morning and goes to a deserted place, and there he prays.  Away from the crowds, in a place and a space of self-isolation, Jesus opens his heart and his mind and his spirit and most especially his body to receive the power and energy that can come only from the One who does not grow weary, from the One who generously gives power to those who faint and strengthens the powerless. 

                   The more direct and truthful answer to the question of how Jesus keeps on keeping on, is that he regularly and persistently and mindfully returns to the presence of God, wherein lies his strength.

                   The approach of the Apostle Paul to this question of how to keep the energy going is somewhat different.  We see that in 1 Corinthians, chapter 9, where Paul consciously works to remove his own ego from the ministry he’s seeking to accomplish.  Listen to Paul in his own words:

“If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no grounds for boasting,

for it is an obligation that has been laid on me…

woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” 

That’s Paul’s call—to preach the gospel—and his practicing it is no reason for boasting.  He sees himself as simply following the call of God, specific to his own life.

                   Translated into your life and ministry through Community Congregational Church,

when you practice the radically inclusive and welcoming love of God, you have no reason to

boast, for this is the message that God has obligated you to proclaim.  This is your call from God, and might I add, you practice it very well.  Across party lines, across cultural dissimilarities, even across generations, you find ways to love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  You are remarkable—and quite humble—with how you practice this call!                         Here’s an example: as the topic of Open and Affirming has come to the forefront in the Pastoral Search process, I cannot tell you how many of you have commented to me over the last few weeks, that while you may not understand the spiritual needs of the GLBTQ community, or even necessarily agree, still you believe at your core that all are welcome here.  And friends, that is what ultimately matters most.  For scripture’s clear portrayal of the kingdom of God is one in which all are welcomed to the table of grace.  God’s table.  God issues the invitations.  All are invited.  Period.  Jesus teaches that, over and over again, in his eating and his drinking and his partying and in his outdoor classrooms, and through his healing of all sorts of maladies and people.  There are no boundaries where Christ is concerned…and no divisions that cannot be bridged. 

                   The Apostle Paul recognizes that, sadly and sometimes, our human egos get in the way of God’s vision becoming real.  And he addresses that ego intrusion this way.

He says that it is not his will or his plan that he is following, but it is the will of God.  Paul’s ego, enlarged as it appears in other places in his writing, takes a back seat in the passage I just read you.  In fact, Paul later says that he essentially becomes a chameleon, taking on the shape and color and demeanor of those he is serving in order to serve them all the better.  His ego is not invested in his ministry, but his heart is.  His mind is.  His spirit is certainly involved, and connects him to the source from whom all blessings come. 

                   A few weeks ago, we honored in worship the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and

today, let us remember the work of his spouse, Coretta Scott King.  Beginning the day after her husband was killed and continuing for the next nearly 40 years, Mrs. King worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor, she spoke throughout the country and the world to the issues of justice for all, she taught, she prayed, and in her living, she showed us all what forgiveness looks like.

We could ask of her life the same question we asked of Jesus: how did she keep up the pace of service?  I invite you to hear Mrs. King’s own words which respond eloquently to this question. 

“I believe that there is a plan and a purpose for each person’s life

and that there are forces working in the universe to bring about good

and to create a community of love and brotherhood. 

Those who can attune themselves to these forces—to God’s purpose—

can become special instruments of God’s will.”

Now, from my perspective, I do not hear Mrs. King suggesting one grand plan or divine design for each and every one of us.  Nor do I hear her saying that God’s will for us is immutable, unchanging from the beginning of time.  What I do hear her suggesting, no proclaiming, is that from her own life and experience, and from the story of scripture, it is clear that God has a will and a way to work through those who are willing to be vessels, channels of God’s creative and loving purposes.  I hear Mrs. King paraphrasing the scripture lessons this morning:

  • Sit mindfully in the presence of God each day. 
  • Align yourself with God, rather than trying to manipulate God to your desire. 
  • And when you are connected to the Divine, there will be more than enough energy to supply your needs.

The beauty of this simple step toward renewed strength is that it only takes a few minutes each day.  To wait for God’s strength and power does not require you to travel to far distant places or to read sophisticated spiritual texts for enlightenment.  In every major faith tradition, including our own Christianity, to receive the strength of that power beyond ourselves requires only that we cease the hectic pace for just a moment or two.  It invites us to attentively and mindfully sit or stand or walk into the presence of the holy.  We can do that right here. 

          Close your eyes with me if you will.  Take a few deep breaths.  As you breathe,

          listen to the pace of your breathing.  Whatever thoughts cross your mind, welcome them

          and invite them to depart for now.  Whatever images dance into your view, welcome them

          and invite them to take a recess for now.  Breathe in and out the Spirit of God which is within and without and over and under and all around you, embracing you with incredibly    Divine Love.  Breathe in to heal you and breathe out to serve others.  Breathing in and         breathing out, you receive power and strength.  For those who wait for God shall renew   their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,

          they shall walk and not faint…

          Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up…And he cured many who were sick with    various diseases…And in the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out         to a deserted place, and there he prayed…And when his disciples found him, he said to          them, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns…for there is much work to be done…”

Prayer: Gracious One, you promise renewal, you promise strength, you promise that we will soar like an eagle, yet we admit that our dis-connect from you often leaves us weary and faint. 

Gently remind us, Dear God, that all we need is to stop for a moment and mindfully reconnect with you.  For the remainder of this day, and in this coming week, help us to breathe deeply of your power and strength, to breathe in and be healed and to breathe out in service and ministry to others.  There is much work to be done, and we humbly ask for your help; praying in the name of the One who mindfully sought you out in those many deserted places of his own soul, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

2018-1-28 “Who Issues Your Call?”

“Who Issues Your Call?”

A meditation based on Mark 1:21-28

January 28, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Today is a party day!  Annual Meeting Day!  So we’re a bit more relaxed and reflective as we look back over this past year and make some decisions looking forward.  In light of this, today’s meditation is different than the usual. 

                   With today’s scripture story, Jesus calls out harmful spirits, and shows, without a doubt, his authority to teach and heal and represent God’s love to the masses.  He taught, the scripture author noted years later, “as one with authority…not like their other religious teachers…”  That’s a model for us!  To do what we do, called by God, with authority.  Notice the passage doesn’t say power over that descends upon, or command and control, or dominance, but it shows authority that resides deep within Jesus, and deep within you as well.  This is an authority give you by God, that leads you—with strength—from death to life, from falsehood to truth, from despair to hope, from fear to trust; authority from God that, with your actions and words, leads you to be a beacon that leads other from hatred to love, and from war to peace.  

                   So today, I want to share with you a favorite children’s story that, when it was published, won all sorts of awards.  It speaks of power.  It speaks of that God-given authority.  It holds out a vision of just how much each of us—working together—can change the world for good.  I invite you to settle in, cuddle up, and listen to the story of “Old Turtle,” written by Douglas Wood and illustrated by Cheng-Khee Chee.

Once, long long ago…Yet somehow, not so very long…When all the animals and rocks

and winds and waters and trees and birds and fish and all the beings of the world could speak…and understand one another…  There began…AN ARGUMENT.

It began softly at first…

Quiet as the first breeze that whispered, “He is a wind who is never still.”

Quiet as the stone that answered, “He is a great rock that never moves.”

Gentle as the mountain that rumbled, “God is a snowy peak, high above the clouds.”
And the fish in the ocean that answered, “God is a swimmer, in the dark blue depths of the sea.”

“No,” said the star, “God is a twinkling and a shining, far, far away.”

“No,” replied the ant, “God is a sound and a smell and a feeling, who is very, very close.”

“God,” insisted the antelope, “is a runner, swift and free, who loves to leap and race with the wind.”

“She is a great tree,” murmured the willow, “a part of the world, always growing and always giving.”

“You are wrong,” argued the island, “God is separate and apart.”

“God is like the shining sun, far above all things,” added the blue sky.

“No, He is a river, who flows through the very heart of things,” thundered the waterfall.

“She is a hunter,” roared the lion.

“God is gentle,” chirped the robin.

“He is powerful,” growled the bear.

And the argument grew LOUDER and LOUDER and LOUDER…until…STOP!A A new voice spoke.  It rumbled loudly, like thunder.  And it whispered softly, like butterfly sneezes.

The voice seemed to come from…why it seemed to come from……Old Turtle!

Old Turtle hardly ever said anything, and certainly never argued about God.

But now Old Turtle began to speak. “God is indeed deep,” she said to the fish in the sea;

“and much higher than high,” she told the mountain.  “He is swift and free as the wind,

and still and solid as a great rock,” she said to the breezes and stones.  “She is the life of the world,” Turtle said to the willow.  “Always close by, yet beyond the farthest twinkling light,” she told the ant and the star.  “God is gentle and powerful.  Above all things and within all things.  “God is all that we dream of, and all that we seek,” said Old Turtle, “all that we come from and all that we can find.”  “God IS.”

Old Turtle had never said so much before.  All the beings of the world were surprised, and became very quiet.  But Old Turtle had one more thing to say. “There will soon be a new family of beings in the world,” she said, “and they will be strange and wonderful. They will be reminders of all that God is. They will come in many colors and shapes, with different faces and different ways of speaking. Their thoughts will soar to the stars, but their feet will walk the earth. They will possess many powers. They will be strong, yet tender, a message of love from God to the earth, and a prayer from the earth back to God.”

And the people came.

But the people forgot.  They forgot that they were a message of love, and a prayer from the earth.  And they began to argue…about who knew God, and who did not; and where God was, and was not; and whether God was, or was not.  And often the people misused their power, and hurt one another.  Or killed one another.  And they hurt the earth.

Until finally even the forests began to die…and the rivers and the oceans and the plants and the animals and the earth itself…

Because the people could not remember who they were, or where God was.

Until one day there came a voice, like the growling of thunder; but as soft as butterfly sneezes, Please, STOP.

The voice seemed to come from the mountain who rumbled, “Sometimes I see God

swimming, in the dark blue depths of the sea.”  And from the ocean who sighed, “He is often among the snow-capped peaks, reflecting the sun.”  From the stone who said, “I sometimes feel her breath, as she blows by.”  And from the breeze who whispered, “I feel

his presence as I dance among the rocks.”  And the star declared, “God is very close;” and the island added, “His love touches everything.”  And after a long, lonesome and scary time…the people listened, and began to hear…  And to see God in one another…and in the beauty of all the Earth.

And Old Turtle smiled.

And so did God.


                   Friends in Christ, Sisters and Brothers in faith, we choose to follow One who says to the storms, “STOP!”  We choose to follow One who calls to the unlikely, “FOLLOW ME!”  We choose to follow One who commands the spirits—the harmful ones and the helpful ones—we choose to follow this One whose authority is from God.

                   And we choose to follow this One whose authority from God lights the way for your own authority to grow into steady sure confidence so that you, in his name, teach and heal and bring moments of kindness and love through your actions, through your speech, through your decisions, and through your very lives.  And I can assure you, God will continue to smile very broadly in your direction!


Amen and Blessed Be

2018-1-21 “What’s Your Call?”

“What’s Your Call?”

A meditation based on Mark 1:14-20

January 21, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   This meditation is a bit different than you usually hear from me.  For these past two weeks have seen something we’ve never seen before in this country’s long history…a president using vulgar language to disparage whole countries of people…people who happen to have been born with darker-colored skin.  And I want to invite us this morning, in light of this occurrence, to revisit the principles of Jesus as we live them out in the United Church of Christ.  I am so very proud of our UCC national leaders, for within two days, they had written a powerful letter demanding an apology.  But more than the political aspects that have been part of us, from the beginning our 400+ year old denomination, more than the church’s involvement in the political sphere, we can hear in their letter the principles that guide us still.  And that is what makes me proud!  I invite you to hear the letter in its entirety, and then we’ll talk a bit about it.  Listen beyond the politics, if you will…listen for the life principles that make this world a better place.

January 13, 2018

The United Church of Christ believes it is called into being to express fully the love of God most powerfully known to us in Jesus, the love of neighbor, and the love of self. We believe our mission is to build a just world for all. We cannot remain true to such a calling and be silent in the face of racist language, especially when it comes from the highest office in the land.  Therefore we condemn the language used by the President in his recent outburst and call on him to apologize.  As we all gather as a nation to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. – a leader committed to racial harmony and justice – the United Church of Christ once again celebrates the rich tapestry of religious and racial diversity that America has become. We too dream of a land where all are equal and are judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.

The United Church of Christ is appalled at the President’s speech. We denounce it as racist. We have grown weary of efforts to either apologize for or normalize the bullying that we have all had to endure.  An inclusive denomination, we affirm the dignity and full humanity of all people of all nations. We are asking the president for an apology. A broken, divided nation will not fully heal without it. We are committed to building bridges of peace and understanding, of participating in the exchange of a love that can heal all wounds and bind together broken communities. Words of understanding and remorse are, we believe, a critical and necessary step in helping this nation heal from this new wound.

The National Officers of the United Church of Christ

The Rev. John Dorhauer, General Minister and President

The Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries

The Rev. James Moos, Executive Minister for Global Engagement and Operations

What life principles did you hear from our national officers?  I hope you heard:

  • We exist as church to express fully the love of God
  • We exist as church to express love of neighbor
  • We exist as church to express love of self
  • Our mission is to build a just world for all
  • We speak up in response to injustice
  • We are inclusive
  • We value all humans, all countries
  • We understand that healing requires apology
  • We are about building bridges of peace and understanding
  • We believe in love as that force that heals wounds and connects communities…we love!

                   When Jesus called those four fishers of fish—Peter, Andrew, James and John—they had no idea what they were getting themselves into!  They dropped nets and boats and livelihoods to follow Jesus, and we marvel that they did so.  When we take a look at their call, we often put ourselves in the place of these four individuals on the shore.  We marvel that they dropped all—changed their lives completely—and followed this teacher.  We ask if we would have been so inspired, so spontaneous.  Yet, according to preacher and professor Barbara Brown Taylor, to ask that question of this passage is to put the emphasis on the wrong syllable!  She suggests that this story is not so much a story about the disciples or about us, this is a story about God.  To focus on what the disciples gave up (and whether we could do the same), is to miss the real miracle of the story. 

                   This “miracle story,” as she calls it, is really about “the power of God—power to walk right up to a quartet of fishermen and work a miracle, creating faith where there was no faith, creating disciples where there were none just a moment before.”  What we’d best find along the way of our own lives, encourages Barbara Brown Taylor “…is a full sense of the power of God – to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hapless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not God, and smack them upside the head with glory.”  

                   What does this “smacking upside the head with glory” look like exactly?  In the case of the fishers, it looks like fishing, only instead of catching fish, they catch people.   In the case of the United Church of Christ, it looks like using one’s God-given gifts, mixed with a whole lot of courage, to live love and bring positive change to the world.  For Community Congregational Church, it looks like, perhaps, doing some of the same things but doing them in a new way, or for new reasons, or with new and renewed vigor.  You see, life with Christ, is a dynamic “call

and response” in which, in every moment and with each decision, we are invited to creatively, and sometimes courageously, respond to God’s call.  

                   What is your call, do you think?  What one or two words describe it?

Perhaps the United Church of Christ, with its long history of speaking out on social concerns, perhaps that gives you pause or motivation or a sense of direction for your own living out of your call.  Living our call is as simple as being who we really are; acting from that, deciding based on who you are, speaking from your deep and true self.  Remember what I said last week…your call is not to be Jesus, or anyone else for that matter.  Your call is to be you, full of God-given gifts unique to you, the best version of you that is possible.  That is your call.  And mine.

                   In a sermon delivered just after the terribly devastating fires here in southern California in the fall of 2007, Dr. Forrest Church wrote that, “Being who we are means embracing our God-given nature and talents, not someone else’s.”  He goes on to tell that he admired his father—Senator Frank Forrester Church, III, longtime U.S. Senator from Idaho.  Son wanted to be like father, saying, “I wanted, more than anything, to borrow his ladder to the stars.  I had more confidence in him than I did in myself.  I wanted to be like him, not like me.”  While working on a doctoral degree, the son was handed a political career on a platter, and when that offer occurred, he nearly followed its tempting pathway.  But his father interceded and called him a quitter.  Finish your doctorate, the father said.  Then go ahead and do whatever you wish with your life.  So the son persevered.  And, in persevering, he found his calling.  Two years later, he was installed as the ninth minister of All Souls [Church in New York City], a position he held for over thirty years.  Rev. Church referred to his calling as a privilege—fulfilling not his destiny, but answering a call that was his, not someone else’s.  He concludes his story with these words, “To envy another’s skills, looks, or gifts rather than embracing your own nature and call is to fail in two respects.  In trying unsuccessfully to be who we are not, we fail to become who we are.”

                   Being who you are, you see, is not an end in and of itself.  Being who you are invites you to see others with the same respect as you see yourself, to honor the integrity of the neighbor, to connect with the stranger, one to the other, in the family of God.  Be who you are.  Loving.  Grumpy.  Honest.  Human.  Creative.  Hopeful.  Willing.  Courageous.  Be who you are. 

And our scripture today assures us that God will be who God is.  Calling you, just as you are.  Just as God has done with humans from the beginning of time, God will call you each day, and God will fill you every moment with what you need in that moment, and God will use you—being you—to change the world for the better.


Amen and Blessed Be!