Monday, April 20, 2015

My Blog Has Moved!

I've launched a new website, From the Intersection (FromTheIntersection,org). That's where you'll find my blog, as well as a regularly updated Resources page where you can find brief notes about books I am reading, video and audio recordings of talks I've given, and links to other sties and materials. There's also a Schedule page where I will list upcoming speaking engagements.
On that site, I'll continue to reflect on how we can engage our culture on behalf of God's kingdom. The way of engagement is not to withdraw or to retreat from the culture, or to be present only to condemn it, or to be absorbed and co-opted by it. To engage the culture is to live in it with passion for justice and peace, confidence that God is present and active everywhere, and commitment to the power of love, grace, and mercy.

Please check out the new site and join me in an ongoing conversation.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Compassion We Need

Have you tuned-in lately to the running play-by-play commentary on your life that is constantly blaring away in your heart and mind?  24/7/365, whether we’re conscious of it or not, harsh natter and chatter away with messages which belittle and berate us. 

When we see ourselves in the mirror, these are the voices that point-out the pimples or the wrinkles, the bad hair or gray hair or missing hair or the hair growing in all the wrong places, and all those parts of our bodies that have spread-out, softened, and sagged. 

When we try something new or dare to speak up in a tough situation, these are the voices that whisper, “you have lost your mind,” and ask, “Who do you think you are?” and remind us we might not be as smart as we think we are.

When we fail, these are the voices that shout, “we told you so” and then sit us down for a review of all the things we could have differently or should have done better. 

When we succeed, they caution us about getting too big for our britches, above our raising, and becoming conceited. 

When we feel lonely, they tell us that we aren’t worth loving.  

These voices jaundice and poison our vision of ourselves; and, we see ourselves so critically, we see other people condemningly, negatively and narrowly. 

We see competitors—people above us or near us on the ladder of achievement—and feel envy and jealousy. 

We see people with power over us and feel fear and resentment. 

We see people who have made it, and their success makes us feel small and inadequate. 

We see people who indifferent to us, who overlook and discount us, and we feel insignificant and angry.  

We see people who don’t seem to be as smart or sophisticated as we think we are, and we feel superior to them. 

We see people whose ideas, convictions, and experiences are different from ours, and we feel confused and threatened.

We can learn to see ourselves and other with compassion.  Jesus shows us how.  There’s a simple, breathtaking sentence in the Gospel of Matthew:  “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

The more I know about the human heart—my heart—the more grateful I grow for that compassion.  He knows what it is like to live in our skin, to be hungry and thirsty, to surge with energy and to fall exhausted, to feel desire and experience frustration, to explore bright possibilities and face bitter limits, to dream and to fail, to love and to grieve, to laugh and to cry.  

He has compassion for us: he embraces our trembling hearts, gentles our fears, quiets our anxieties, releases us from our guilt, unchains us from our despair, and embraces our loneliness. 

He has mercy for us.  All of us.  With him, from him, and in him, we can learn and live the ways of compassion for ourselves and for everyone. 

Lord knows (he really does), we need it.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Joy and Death

Across my years as a pastor, I learned that people didn’t like it when I talked about death.  So, fair warning: though this post is actually about joy, it’s about the kind of joy that finds us in life’s hard experiences, including death. 

Early in Holy Week, I heard the whispers an insistent invitation: “Face as fully as you can the fact of your death, and embrace joyfully the gift of your life.” Over the last year or so, I’ve felt, viscerally and unavoidably, the presence of death.  I’ve also tried and sometimes failed to answer, tenaciously and trustingly, God’s call to fullness of life. This Holy Week invitation felt daunting but crucial.

Sages from nearly every tradition have told us that we only begin to live, truly live, when we come to terms with the stark reality that our lives will end.  Psalm 90, for example, voices this prayer: “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom said: “Full awareness of death ripens our wisdom and enriches our life. . .  Though the fact, the physicality, of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.”

Worship at All Souls Cathedral on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and at last night’s Great Easter Vigil guided and supported the work I felt called to do this week. On Thursday, prompted by Thomas Murphy’s sermon, I remembered that Ernest Becker wrote: “The human animal is characterized by two great fears that other animals are protected from: the fear of life and the fear of death.” 

I’m convinced that we fear life because we fear death; and I know that it’s also true that, the greater our sense of un-lived life, the greater our anxiety about our impending deaths. We will regret the end of our lives all the more if we come to our deaths with a sense that we have never pursued our dreams, used our gifts, spoken our truths, told our stories, and sung our songs. It’s the ultimate vicious cycle: fear of death begets fear of life which increases our fear of death which heightens our fear of life.

As I sat in the darkened church after Friday night’s service, I wrote this prayer: “O God, give me the love which faces, embraces, and transforms my death and the fears it generates. Cause me to trust anew that all shall be well. Help me to carry the awareness of death with me, but not to dwell on it.  Let it motivate me to live authentically but not to let it master me. Let this ending be for me a continual beginning.  Allow the knowledge of death to give me humility and urgency for the living of my days. Show me how to die, and, by so doing, show me how to live.”

Near the beginning of last night’s Great Easter Vigil at All Souls Cathedral, the stunning words of the Exsultet resounded through the room and resonated in my heart.  Among them were these shining promises: 

This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grace.  This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life. . . . How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away.  It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn.  It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.  How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and humanity is reconciled to God.”

Easter means that God forgives our sins and overcomes our estrangement.  Such amazing love demands “my life, my soul, my all.”  

Since the fear-dealing power of death has died with Jesus on the cross, there’s no good reason—and no excuse--for living half-heartedly and hesitatingly.

Because of Easter, joy permeates even death and energizes abundant life.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The DMV, the Difference a Year Makes, and Vision Tests

I recently spent a couple of hours at the DMV; it was time to renew my driver’s license.  The place was crowded with, in the words of the old Prayerbook, “all sorts and conditions” of people.  It was a multiracial and multigenerational melting pot.  Around me, people were speaking in a variety of languages, including that version of English I associate with New Jersey (it really is a different language, I think!).  Every imaginable style of dress and undress was on display.  People had done things with their hair I didn’t know could be done.  Almost all of us were talking or texting or emailing on our smartphones.

Against stereotype, the DMV personnel were all friendly and helpful. The younger woman who helped me was particularly kind.  After I took and passed (whew!) the vision and road signage tests, she reviewed the information on my license to update my address, phone number, height, weight, and organ donor information.  She also asked, ever so gently, “Mr. Sayles, is it alright with you if I change the hair color we have listed from brown to grey?”  I laughed and said to her, “I think that’s the only honest thing to do, don’t you?”  She smiled and said, “But your eyes are still brown.”  “They are,” I said, and I thought, “At least that’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”  My eyes get more tired more quickly, and the magnification I need for reading glasses goes slowly but steadily higher.  My eyes fill with tears of both grief and joy more often than they used to, but, their color hasn’t changed.  It’s not something I’d not thought to be concerned about or grateful for before this last visit to the DMV.      

The expiration and renewal dates for drivers’ licenses are tied, of course, to birthdays. In the interval between the last renewal and this one, so much has happened to me, in me, and around me. The year between my 57th and 58th birthdays has especially been a whirlwind of change and challenge. 

Last year at this time, I was in the early rounds of chemotherapy; my body had not yet undergone much of the pain and weakness that treatment would bring. 

I served as pastor of a wonderful church, but I was also aware that cancer had made more insistent and urgent some questions I had long had about the shape of my vocation (not just about “job” but about how, with my whole life, I respond to God’s call). 

Last year at this time, I did not know how life-giving it could be to come as close as I would come to death.

I hadn’t yet experienced what I am still learning about how healing utter brokenness can be. 

I hadn’t yet discovered what I am now discovering about vulnerability’s illusion-shattering and pride-breaking gifts. 

This year has given me a deeper assurance than I have ever had that mercy does not crumble even though I do, that joy swims across the river of my tears, and that love is more powerful than all the powers which seem, for a time, to defeat it. 

When I was a toddler, I had a couple of corrective surgeries to my eyes. In some ways, all the years since have been about learning to see—about finding vision, sharpening perception, and developing insight. My eyes are still brown, but I see differently now, far differently even than a year ago. I am grateful, and I am curious about what I will see in the days ahead.