Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Struggles with the World

        I have to say that I am disappointed in my world.  The older I get, the more I live through, the more this is true.  Disappointed, by the way, is a very understated word in this case. It pains me, it devastates me, to see the ways people justify destroying the earth, brutalize people of color, refuse to help refugees, don't hesitate to increase the divide between the rich and the poor by giving more and more to those who already are rich and taking away from the poor, the underprivileged and the oppressed even the little that they have.  The more I see, the more I have come to believe that there really are people who choose evil in this world: they choose to "otherize" anyone who does not look like them or have the same wealth, power or general life situation as them: they "otherize", then villainize, then work to actively oppress, injure, destroy and damage anything that gets in the way of them acquiring more money and more power for themselves.  I've spent years trying to understand the fear that could cause this kind of behavior, and I have no doubt that I will continue to try to understand it.  But as I read in one of my study leave books this week, "it is problematic to refuse to see willful intent to commit evil." (p73 of Sustaining Hope in An Unjust World by Timothy Charles Murphy. MA: Chalice Press, 2019).  I don't like to see it that way.  But as I read his arguments, I had to agree.  There is evil here: intentionality in harming the earth and other people to obtain what a person wants for themself.  The author goes on to say, "progressives have the bias that education will solve most problems," and I admit that I, too, have had this bias.  I have mistakenly assumed that people are cruel and do horrible things to others because they just don't understand.  And I've had to come to a new awareness that many do understand. And are choosing to do harm, because it serves them.  That awareness is devastating to me.  I don't understand it.  I can't comprehend it.  But I am having to accept it.
       I have to admit that those moments of acceptance of this reality often lead me to a place of abject despair, in which I see the upcoming destruction of our planet (probably through climate change, and probably much sooner than many imagine) as the natural and logical consequential ending for a species that has, itself, become a virus: one that feeds off of the earth, other creatures and even other people by destroying them.  In those moments of despair I think "Well, we deserve this.  Maybe once we've wiped ourselves out the earth can begin to heal."  But then I look at my children, and I hear the birds, and I see pictures of elephants and forests and I cannot bear the thought of all of them being wiped out because of our selfishness and greed.
        More, I have come to realize that the choice to NOT act, the choice to just sit and do nothing while the earth spins out of control; this is a choice that comes from a place of privilege.  Black people do not have the choice to avoid involvement when their families, their friends, their communities are being slaughtered in this country.  Those who are already being devastated by climate change were not given the choice to avoid being devastated by the climate chaos. Those who are refugees escaping deadly home situations do not have a choice about being affected by policies that refuse to grant them safe spaces to live and raise their children.  And the list goes on.
       So, in spite of my devastation, in spite of my sense of despair, in spite of the grief that I feel on a daily basis now for my image of what our world could be, should be, would be, I have to choose to act on behalf of the "least of these" to the best of my ability, to stand with the disenfranchised, exploited, oppressed and poor, no matter what the cost to my personal life.  As a post I saw recently said, "Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are."  Because I believe deeply that we are all connected, that when you hurt, I am hurting too (whether I know it or not!), in some ways I think this comment is inaccurate.  So perhaps, I would say it this way, "Justice will not be served until those who are oblivious to their own personal damage at the hands of the injustice are as outraged as those who are obviously and outwardly devastated by the injustice."  Either way, I feel called to action.  And I hope that you will join me.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Universal Language - Pentecost


Numbers 11:24-30
1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Acts 2:1-21

               Today we hear the Pentecost story as we do every year.  We also heard two other scriptures, both of which are focused on gifts of the spirit, and in particular, the recognition, naming and celebrating that those gifts are not just given to a few, but given to all people, for the common good.  Pentecost in many ways focuses on this as well.  The gifts of hearing and understanding, of crossing the lines of difference in culture and ethnicity and even religion: all of these, too, were gifts of the spirit and all of these, too, were given to the entire community of people.  I loved hearing our scripture this morning in all the different languages and our service parts led by different people because I felt blessed by those different voices, and the recognition of the different gifts that each of them have: in this case, the gift of languages and crossing divides of understanding with people who speak those different languages.  In today’s readings, they were “All filled with the Holy spirit” we are told.  So there are two messages here.  As Paul tells us in the Corinthians passage, “A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good.”  So first, each person is given gifts.  And second, all these gifts are for everyone’s good, for the common good.
               But we struggle with both of these things, don’t we?  And, frankly, this is a human problem that has been in existence from the very beginning.  In this passage from Numbers, Joshua had trouble with the fact that other people besides Moses were given spiritual gifts, that they could prophesy too.  He wanted Moses to stop these other people, to prevent them using their gifts.  Of course, Moses was able to see a bigger vision, “Are you jealous for my sake?  If only all God’s people were prophets with the spirit on them!”  And this happens in the New Testament too.  In Mark 9 (and in Luke 9), we hear the story of the disciples getting upset with Jesus because someone other than them was throwing out demons in Jesus’ name.  The scripture reads, “John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.’  Jesus replied, ‘Don’t stop him!  No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me.  Whoever isn’t against us is for us.’”
               But we have trouble with this, don’t we?  And I’d say our trouble with this is on both ends.  First, we don’t like others being able to do what we feel is for us to do alone.  Like in the PCUSA there was a huge debate about whether or not Commission Lay Preachers (so people who don’t have the same kind of theological training as our pastors) should be allowed to serve churches, to serve communion, to moderate session, to do baptisms.  Many pastors felt that they did not want to share what we ourselves have been trained to do.  On the other end of this, then, is people who feel they don’t have the rights and privileges of serving God in the same way or to the same degree as those of us who are ordained.  One of my pastor friends this week was sharing that he is struggling with his congregation because people are not stepping up to help.  They are all asking him, “What should we do?  Lead us!”  And he is burning out.  Their need for his leadership is understandable.  When things are different and difficult, when people are in grief and in pain, they want leadership.  They want answers.  They want someone to guide them and tell them what to do.  But what all of these stories show us is that, as we say in the Presbyterian church, “the ministers are all the people.”  Too often in our churches, people become used to being an audience rather than a participant.  And when that happens, they fail to see their own gifts, their own callings within the church.  We have different gifts.  Maybe you are not comfortable with public speaking, but you are comfortable with listening to someone.  Maybe you are not comfortable teaching, but you have gifts for seeing the big picture and looking down the road for what is best to be done.  Maybe you don’t have the gift of comforting others, but you are able to tell stories in such a way that people are touched and moved.  Maybe you don’t have the gift of seeing what is to come, but you are an artist of some kind: a musician, a painter, a dancer, or a storyteller who can tell deeper truths through your art.  We all have these gifts.  If you don’t know what your gift is, this is a wonderful time to take space to figure out what it is.  Try new things, explore the callings, the tuggings, the urgings of your heart and see what you can learn.  But each of us has gifts.  And it is not right for us to think that one gift is more important or more valuable than another gift.  As the Corinthians passage said, “Christ is just like the human body – a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.”  In other places Paul says that the weakest parts of the body are to be honored the most.  And truthfully, we are only as strong as our weakest link.  That goes for our families, our churches, and also our country, and our world.  All of your gifts figure into the leadership of the church, not as watchers, not as people being entertained, but as participants in worship, in the life of the church, in service, and in the community.  The new language, then, of Pentecost, is a common language of everyone being touched by the flame of the Spirit in shared leadership within the church and without as well.
               The second part of this then, is that all of the gifts we are given are for the COMMON good.  They are not for you, they are not for one person or for one family.  They are all for the common good.  During this time, we look for a difference between social distancing and spiritual distancing.  And we find that we are being called to use a different language, or different languages within the church.  We are not, during this time, speaking in languages of being together in body, but we are learning to speak a new language in the church of being together on-line, and in prayer, and through bible study.  We are learning new languages of being together virtually as we figure out how to care for one another even from a distance and how to care for those most impacted by the virus whether that be because of disease, or lack of work and resources.  The languages of our activity are different now.  Our activity is more “home based.” But still, the language of Pentecost, the language of prayer, the language of faith, is a universal, communal language for all people, no matter how we are speaking it, no matter where we are speaking it, no matter in what way we are speaking it. 
               Without Pentecost, Easter is not participatory.  Without Pentecost, Easter itself is just something we see, that we watch, that we hear about.  But with Pentecost, the church is born.  And the church is community, it is action.  It is the speaking of a new language, a language of prayer, a language of singing, a language of caring for one another both within the church community and without, but in new ways.  The language of Pentecost is putting aside the individual in favor of the communal.  What is best for all people?  What is best for community? 
               I think about the times that we are in.  I read an article that was talking about how people were much more willing to shelter in place and be careful and protective when they thought that the people affected by the disease were people like them.  As soon as they came to see that the people being affected were different or other than them, people have moved to reopen, to not be afraid to risk the lives of “those people over there.”  You may have all seen on the news the sign held by someone at one of the protests against the shelter in place “sacrifice the weak: reopen.”   He didn’t see himself as part of “the weak” so he was willing for others to be sacrificed.  Or another one, “Sacrifice the elderly: reopen.” As we learn that people of color are being more deeply affected by this than white people, I have heard things much worse.  But as the church we are called to care for everyone.
               I saw a video this week.  A man was asked if he thought that it was okay if people died in order to reopen things.  He said he thought it was.  The interviewer asked him how many people he would think it would be okay to sacrifice in order to reopen the community.  The man said, “between 70 and 700.”  I don’t know where he came up with that number.  But the interview repeated back to him, “So, you feel it would be okay if 70 people died in order to reopen things around here?”  “Yes,” the man replied.  The interviewer then said, “well, we just happen to have 70 people.”  And around the corner came 70 people, in the front of the group was a child, about 5 years old.  And as they rounded the corner, the little girl starting running towards the man being interviewed.  He looked stunned and he said, “That’s my family!”  The little girl who’d started running towards him yelled “Daddy!” and threw herself in his arms.  At that point the interviewer asked him again, “how many people did you say could die in order to reopen this area?”  To which the sobbing man replied, “none!”
               Again, we may think this is hokey. And it was a bit: it had me sobbing by the end, which was the intention, I’m sure.  I also realize that things are much more complicated than this.  As businesses close, people are losing work, losing income.  They are struggling to put food on their tables and to care for their children.  These are real problems too and the answers to these problems are not as simple as “stay closed or re-open.”  It’s just not that easy.
               But in some cases, the situation is a lot more clear cut.  I am shocked by how many churches, church communities, for example, have decided to put what?  Their pastor’s needs?  Above the needs of the community.  Churches across the nation are becoming the hot spots of the virus: spreading disease not only among their members but then out into the larger communities because they are reopening too soon.  And why are they doing this?  What is the loss to the church if we learn how to stay connected through the internet, through phone, through the mail, through our prayers rather than gathering together in person?  But churches seem to have forgotten to love their neighbors as themselves.  We are called to be Christian first and foremost, called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and churches, of all places, must remember to love their neighbors, their members, those people their members interact with, and the needs of the larger community for healing, for some time and space to figure out cures and vaccines, for some time of social healing, as themselves. 
               I think about the story of Abraham confronting God when God wanted to wipe out the city of Sodom.  In Genesis 18, Abraham approached God and said, “Will you really sweep away the innocent with the guilty? What if there are fifty innocent people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not save the place for the sake of the fifty innocent people in it?  It’s not like you to do this, killing the innocent with the guilty as if there were no difference.  It’s not like you! Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?” The Lord said, “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will save it because of them.” Abraham responded, “Since I’ve already decided to speak with my Lord, even though I’m just soil and ash,  what if there are five fewer innocent people than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city over just five?” The Lord said, “If I find forty-five there, I won’t destroy it.” Once again Abraham spoke, “What if forty are there?”  The Lord said, “For the sake of forty, I will do nothing.”  He said, “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord, but let me speak. What if thirty are there?” The Lord said, “I won’t do it if I find thirty there.”  Abraham said, “Since I’ve already decided to speak with my Lord, what if twenty are there?”  The Lord said, “I won’t do it, for the sake of twenty.”  Abraham said, “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord, but let me speak just once more. What if there are ten?”  And the Lord said, “I will not destroy it because of those ten.” When the Lord finished speaking with Abraham, he left; but Abraham stayed there in that place.
               We too, should spare the city, or the church, or the world, because there are at least ten folk among us who are vulnerable and do not deserve to be put at risk.
               We forget that God is in all places and in all situations.  We forget the spiritual truths that connect us, the spiritual practices of prayer, sabbath, study.  We forget that God is bigger than this time and that this time, too, will pass.  We forget the importance of healing to Jesus, and of times of sabbatical for all people.  This virus is calling us into these spiritual practices.  And calling us to learn new languages of connection through conversation which can be done on phone, mail and on-line.
               Our challenge is to be tree-planters, which we plant for other people: for our children’s children.  Olive trees take 100 years to bear fruit.  But people planted them for their children’s children.  We tend to be people of “now”.  We forget to think of others and we forget to think ahead.  But this time is calling us to remember. 
               The story of Pentecost is a story of understanding, of all people across all differences coming together and speaking and understanding a universal language.  That language is the language of the Spirit, the language of God.  That language is the language of Love.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Grace


1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57




A man who died was told by St. Peter outside the pearly gates that he had to have 200 points in order to get into heaven.  The man thought hard and finally said, “Well, let’s see.  I was a member of my church of 47 years, a deacon, and a Sunday School teacher for 32 years.”  St. Peter replied, “That’s very good.  That’s one point.” 

The man looked scared but he continued,  “Oh my.  Let me think again.  I was a good husband.  I never cheated on my wife.  My children loved me because I was a good father.  I tithed and volunteered at the soup kitchen.  I was in the Lions Club...”  St. Peter responded, “That’s very good, too.  It sounds like you were a man of both great faith and great works.  One more point.”  The man began to sweat as he thought and thought, searching for something that could give him the last 198 points.  Finally he said, “Gosh, if I get in here, it will be by the grace of God.”  At this St. Peter exclaimed, “And that’s worth 200 points.  Come on in!”

               Much of the Corinthians passage for today is focused on end-times, and on being ready for whenever God calls on us, whether that be for a specific action or to face the music of the end of our lives.  But the part that I find myself called to focus on today is a small part of today’s readings.  And that is the passage where Paul says, “last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time.  I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church.  I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing.  In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me.”

               Today I want to talk about that Grace.  Paul feels he has been saved by grace, by which he means the gifts of being chosen, being loved into his true calling, despite how he behaved before, despite whatever he had done or been in his past.  And the result of that grace, the forgiveness and that opportunity to begin again is that he works harder than all the rest, that he gives all of who he is in return and in thanksgiving for all that has been done for him.  The gospel lesson describes a similar situation.  The pharisee feels scandalized that Jesus is allowing the woman to touch him.  I want you to think about who it is that you feel worst about in this world.  What kind of sins do you find most unacceptable?  Murder?  Greed?  Abuse of children?  Rape?  Sex trafficking?  What if someone who did these things was a person being cared for by Jesus?  Being LOVED by Jesus?  How would you feel?  You would probably feel the same way that Simon felt: you would probably feel that if he really understood what that person had done, he would not be kind to him, he would not allow him to interact with him in that way, he certainly wouldn’t touch him or love him.  But Jesus points out that the woman knew he would love her, she had faith that she would be seen, valued, forgiven, honored as a child of God, regardless of her past, regardless of what she had done.  She trusted, had faith, in that grace being offered.  And as a result of that faith and the acceptance of that grace, her gratitude and response and giving was far, far greater than that of those who didn’t feel they had anything major that needed to be forgiven, who did not feel they needed grace, who have no reason to feel grateful for the grace, the forgiveness, the second chances, the opportunities that they have been given. 

               But is it ever really true that the grace we’ve been offered has been small?  It seems to be true that the more we have, the more grace we’ve been offered from the start, the more deeply we forget that everything we have, all of it, in fact comes from grace.  We start believing that we’ve earned what we have.  We forget that it is all grace.

Perhaps this is easier to see in the extremes.  We know, for example, that the Queen of England didn’t do anything to deserve being born into the royal family that would then lead to her being queen.  People who have inherited millions and even billions of dollars have not earned that money.  And those who appear to have “earned” huge amounts of money almost universally do so by stepping on other people.  But all of them forget this.  All of them start feeling entitled to the things they have and believe they have them because they are somehow better than everyone else.  While it may be easier to see in the extreme cases, most of us forget that we, too, are where we are by grace.  All of us at one time or another have been given a chance we didn’t deserve, an opportunity that we didn’t deserve.  Additionally, we did not earn being born into families that could support us through our education and through our lessons.  We did not earn having parents who were able to feed us good food growing up and surround us with caring adults that would be in large part the reasons why we have come as far as we have come and succeeded in the ways in which we have succeeded.  We forget this.  We start to believe that we have more than other people because we are somehow more deserving.  But the cost of that arrogance, the result of that mistaken pride is, first of all, a lack of humility, and secondly, which hurts us to a much greater degree, a depletion of gratitude; and all of that, more often than not, leads to a lack of generosity on our parts as well.  We don’t recognize what we have as grace and so we are stingy with what we believe we have earned, what we believe we deserve.  We don’t remember that all of who we are has been because of the many, many gifts we’ve been given throughout our lives, and so we don’t feel the need to return it, to nurture others in the same ways in which we have been nurtured, to return all of who WE are to God, as the woman in Jesus story gave all of who she was to Jesus.

               Henry Covington, in Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith  had grown up in deep poverty.  He had grown up in squalor in a tiny apartment with seven other children as well as rats, as well as violence.  He responded to all of that the way most kids do: by retreating into drugs, crime and violence himself.  His crimes became worse and worse, and for some of them he paid with jail time.  He kept finding himself being offered second chances, he got away with a great deal, but he was angry and could not hear or accept the grace that was being offered to him.  But at the point at which he thought he, and more, his wife and child, were going to die, he made the decision to accept the grace of God’s love that was being offered to him.  He made promises that he found impossible not to keep.  He turned his life over to God out of gratitude, became a pastor, took care of the homeless and the poor, lived a life of poverty again because he gave it all back to God.  And he said this, “Amazing grace!..  I coulda been dead…  I shoulda been dead! … I woulda been dead!..  But his grace.  His grace saved a wretch and I was a wretch.  You know what a wretch is?  I was a crackhead, an alcoholic, I was a heroin addict, a liar, a thief.  I was ALL those things.  But then came Jesus. (p 136) “

               I think about what Mitch Albom said in his book and it, too, reflects back on how Simon must have felt, “What would you do if your clergyman told you stories like (what we are told in the book about Henry’s terrible past)?  There was a part of me that admired Henry’s honesty, and part that felt his laundry list of bad behavior should somehow disqualify him from the pulpit.”

               Pastor Henry said, “In the book of Acts, we read the Paul – after his conversion – people distrusted him because he used to persecute the church, but now he praised it.  ‘is this the same guy?  Can’t be!  Nuh-uh.’… it’s amazing how folks can’t see you, ‘cause they want to keep you in that past.  Some of our greatest problems in ministering to people is that they knew us back before we came to the Lord - … the same thing with Paul… they just looked at his past.  And when we’re still looking at ourselves through our past, we’re not seeing what God has done.  What (God) can do!  We’re not seeing the little things that happen in our lives…. You are NOT your past!”  Mitch continued, “did you ever hear a sermon that felt as if it were being screamed into your ear alone?  When that happens, it usually has more to do with you than the preacher.”

               The grace that Henry received made him into the man he became, a man who took homeless people in, not only to the church, but into his own home with his own wife and kids.  He became a man who didn’t take a salary for his work, but just served others with everything he had.  He had experienced an extreme amount of grace, and he returned it by giving his life to God.

               This isn’t as distant from us as you might think.  As most of you know, I am VERY close to a man who grew up with very little… who experienced extreme poverty as a kid, but who is now doing extremely well.  He is one of the most generous people I know.  And I know that this comes from a place of gratitude for the grace of what he has had, what he has gained through a life of challenges.  When he is given anything, he still expresses more gratitude than others.  He remembers, daily, how far he has come.  And he responds to the grace he has been given by giving even more grace, compassion, care and love to those around himself.

               But even when we fail to see the grace that is given to us, it is offered to us, every day in so many ways.  There was a boy who wanted so very much to play baseball well.  But every game he played he was simply unable to hit the ball.  In the very last game, of the very last inning of the season, his turn to bat came when there were already two outs for his team.  When the first ball was pitched, he missed it completely.  Second ball pitched, he missed as well.  Finally, when the third ball was pitched, he got a hit!  But this boy who had tried so hard and wanted so much to do well was so excited when he finally hit the ball, that he ran to third base instead of first and so he got out and lost the game for his team.  He was devastated.  He felt like a failure not only for himself but for his team.  Perhaps the “fair” thing in that situation would have been for his team members, and maybe even especially his coach, to give him a hard time. But instead his couch was waiting for him as he walked back to the dugout area and give him a big hug and said “that was a great hit! Well done.”   

God’s grace is like that.  Jesus tells us that he came not to condemn the world, but to save it.  Well, much of the time, we as a people, we as a country, and even we as individuals, God knows we deserve judgement, anger, condemnation.  We hurt each other, we hurt the earth.  We don’t succeed, most of the time, in loving God above all else, and we fail miserably in loving our neighbors as ourselves.   And yet in the face of that we are offered grace.  We are offered love.  We are offered the opportunities to try again, to do better, to celebrate life and to return it.  We are given the chance to erase the past and start again.  When we can summon gratitude for what we have, when we can remember that truly all we have is through grace, we are usually much more able not only to be grateful, but to be generous and kind to others as well. 

The commentary, “Feasting on the Word”  says that the antidote for hypocrisy is grace. “The unearned favor of God may seem a foreign import to Matthew's demanding Gospel, where a banqueter gets tossed into the outer darkness for showing up in the wrong clothes (22:11-14). Acts have consequences in Matthew, and there is a structure of reward for faithful work done well; but his coin has another side. Matthew's God forgives infinitely (18:21-35). His Jesus will forgive Peter's denials and the disciples' cowardice—will even abide their post-resurrection doubt to entrust them with his message for all the world (26:56, 69-75; 28:16-20). This Jesus keeps loving and loving, despite failings and blemishes.” (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ)).

God first gave us life.  God then gave us families, the beauty of nature, the gifts of the talents and resources we have.  Jesus’ first gift to us was the gift of celebration as he turned water into wine.  God begins by giving us abundance, which is a reflection and an offering of God’s grace. And we respond by giving back, by giving to others, by sharing love and resources and gifts with those around us.

               That is amazing.  That is grace.  It is offered to people we don’t like, it is offered to people we love and it is offered to us.  When we love God, when we come to know God through Jesus, we see a God of grace and we know a God of grace and we are loved by a God of grace. 

A friend of mine had a parishioner at one of his churches who could not sing “amazing grace.”  It turns out the reason was that it was sung at the memorial service of her father who died when she was just a girl.  Every time she heard the song it brought back images and feelings of loss for her.  But before my friend was aware of this, he preached a sermon that told the history of the writing of Amazing Grace.

The composer of the song, John Newton, was the captain of a slave ship when slavery was a profitable and popular occupation.  But after years of leading this slave ship he had a remarkable conversion experience in which he came to believe at a deep level in the grace of Christ and the call for justice and love to all people.  The grace that saved him, the grace the brought him into faith was so transformational to him that, like the woman in today’s gospel story, he quit his work as a slave boat captain.  He went to seminary and became a strong protestor and preacher against the slave trade.  The song, Amazing Grace, is autobiographical.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now am found: was blind but now I see.  Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.  Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come: ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.  When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.”

               Several weeks after my friend preached this sermon, the now old woman who had not been able to sing Amazing Grace came up to him and said that for the first time in 60 years she had been able to sing that hymn.  And in some way had found a deep healing because of knowing the history of the composition and her now new experience of singing it.  The sharing of stories is often grace too.

               Everything that we have has come to us through grace.  And when we take the time to remember that, to celebrate that, to have gratitude for that, then we can also become more the people God calls us to be: people of compassion, people of gratitude, people of generosity, and mostly, people who in thanksgiving and love for God can turn and offer the same grace that we have been given, to those around us. 

               I want to end by telling a personal story of grace:

               25 years ago I attended a General Assembly which is when our National Presbyterian Church meets every couple years to work through issues and make decisions.  That particular year was another banner year for infighting over issues.  I went to General Assembly and spent most of my time in the chapel praying.  The whole time I was there, there was only one other person who came into the chapel to pray, and she, too, came daily.  The first day we met there we fell into discussion and it became very clear that we were on opposite sides of pretty much any theological debate and in particular those many issues that were on the floor of GA that particular year.  For the first several days this successfully isolated us from each other.  We no longer talked, no longer made eye contact.  But rather we sat on our opposite sides of the chapel each praying earnestly for the other persons’ enlightenment and even redemption.  It would have been easy for me to start seeing her as “the enemy” and as a prime example of a reason why I would have been perfectly fine with our church splitting over some of these issues.  By the last day it was obvious that neither of us had been changed in our stances or opinions by the other person’s prayers. 

               And yet, at the same time, both of us were changed.  Because, by the last day, we sat together and as were both about to leave the chapel to attend the GA session that would decide some of the issues we disagreed so strongly about, we decided instead to spend the time praying out loud together, each respectfully and earnestly caring for one another and for the whole General Assembly as sisters and brothers in faith.  Afterwards we spent some time talking, getting to know one another more personally, hearing each other’s stories.  We came to truly love each other, and in so doing, were able to have more compassion for all of those on the other sides of these issues.  She could no longer be “the enemy”.  She was family, and not someone I could or wanted to push out of “my” church.  This began with grace offered to each of us.  It moved from that into grace that we offered to one another.  And that grace changed us both.  Grace is always offered to us.  All we have to do is accept it in, and that taking of it in can change us completely.  Amen.   

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Love

                                                                Mark 12:28-44

1 Corinthians 13:1-13



               As we know, the passage from Corinthians is often, very often, used in weddings.  The irony of this, as we also know, is that Paul wrote this to a community in great distress, arguing with each other, fighting with each other, and it was an admonishment from Paul to behave differently as a community towards one another.  This passage in itself has absolutely nothing to do with romantic love (even the word used here for love in the original Greek is not romantic love but brotherly, godly, holy love), and it is not even about individual love.  This is a letter talking to all of us about how to get along with one another in community when we do not agree, do not like each other, and do not want to be community together.  So, in one way it has absolutely nothing to do with romantic loves and the fact that is used so often in weddings is strange.  On the other hand, as I often say in the weddings I’m asked to officiate over when those getting married pick this passage, in some ways it is very appropriate since every marriage will have times of stress, times of discord, times of dis-ease.  Knowing what you are called to do during those times is essential.  How will you love each other when times become difficult?  When you have that day you just don’t want to actually be in the same room as your spouse, or when you find yourselves on opposite sides of a moral or practical dilemma, and that will happen, the words in this passage are important to remember. 

               The passages from Mark that we read today are also all focused on love.  Jesus confronts the leaders of the day saying that they are not acting in love.  “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets.  They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”  And then we see an example of what it is to be loving: the widow gives everything she has out of her love, and is praised for doing so.  And today’s reading from Mark began with the legal expert once again trying to test Jesus, trying to trick Jesus.  This is the end of a section in Mark where Jesus has been tested again and again by the legal experts who are trying to catch Jesus up in a way that will discredit him with his followers.  Today’s question about which commandment is most important ends this testing.  And the difference here is that while with the other tests that have been put to Jesus we hear that the people following Jesus are amazed at his answers but those who are trying to test Jesus simply go away, this time, the legal expert actually agrees with Jesus.  There is movement here, even on the part of the one trying to trick Jesus, trying to confront Jesus.  And I think that movement happens because Jesus answer is so simple, so clear, and so beyond dispute.  It’s so clear that even those trying to trick him, trap him, discredit him in the end are forced to agree with him and unite with him in this.  What are we required to do?  It is very, very simple.  Hard to do, but simple and clear.  We are to love God with everything that we are.  And we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  That’s it.  Everything else is the fulfillment of those two commandments.  Everything else is the way in which we act out and live out that love.  Everything else is description of what it looks like to live lives of love.

               I want to point out that the way this is phrased in the Common English Bible translation is very interesting.  Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, 30 and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.[a] 31 The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself.[b] No other commandment is greater than these.”  The first commandment is a command: you MUST love God with all your heart, being, mind and strength.  But the second then is “you WILL love your neighbor as yourself.”  Why?  Because when you love God with all that you are, you WILL love your neighbor as yourself.  As Dorothy Day said it, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.”  We really only love God as much as we love the person we don’t like.  And therefore, when we finally choose (and it is a choice) to love God with all that we are, when we choose that, we will find that we love even those people we didn’t like before. 

               And this is how you shall be known.  This is how we all shall be known: by our love.  And when we are not acting love towards anyone, we are showing by our actions a lack of love towards God.  They are one and the same.  And when we follow in our behaviors and in our judgements and in our decisions and worldviews people who are acting unloving towards anyone, we are following people who do not love God, no matter what they may claim.  No matter that they are walking around in robes looking for honor.  If they are cheating those people who are already hurting the most, they do not and are not loving God.

               All of these words, Paul’s words on love, Jesus’ words on our commandments: they all say the same thing.  We, as a community, must learn how to love.  To quote 1 Corinthians again, “Love isn’t arrogant.  It isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice but it is happy with the truth.”  When we see arrogance and rudeness and complaining and an execution of injustice and lying, we know that these behaviors do not involve love.  And we are called to choose something else, as individuals, but much more, as a community. 

               I want to be clear here.  Love, in this context, is not about a feeling.  It is not about liking people or approving bad behavior, or turning away when we see injustice.  It isn’t just words.  Love is action. It is action of patience, it is action of kindness.  Love walks humbly with God.  And as we see here, while faith and hope are also essential for us as people of God, Love is the foundation.  Love is the center of the flower that is surrounded by petals of faith, hope, charity, kindness, compassion.  Love is the grounding on which we live, and breathe and have our being.  When we forget that, when we act in our own best interests and fail to care for those who are suffering, who are vulnerable, who are at risk in any way and in any place, we have not just failed to love our neighbor as ourselves, we have shown ourselves as failing to love God with all that we are.

               Frederick Buechner says this about love:

               The first stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them. The last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The unabashed eros of lovers, the sympathetic philia of friends, agape giving itself away freely no less for the murderer than for the victim …-these are all varied manifestations of a single reality. To lose yourself in another's arms, or in another's company, or in suffering for all who suffer, including the ones who inflict suffering upon you - to lose yourself in such ways is to find yourself, is what it's all about, is what love is.  Of all powers, love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold that is the human heart.  It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent….To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth.  In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion, but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as easily produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone.  Thus, in Jesus' terms, we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonably honest friends.

When Jesus talked to the Pharisees, he didn't say, "There, there. Everything's going to be all right." He said, "You brood of vipers! how can you speak good, when you are evil!" (Matthew 12:34). And he said that to them because he loved them.

This does not mean that liking may not be a part of loving, only that it doesn't have to be. Sometimes liking follows on the heels of loving. It is hard to work for people's well-being very long without coming in the end to rather like them too.

(~originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words)

                The thing that is so contrary to our cultural understanding here is that love does the opposite of what we expect.  When we love those who cannot return anything to us, when we offer care to those whom we see as our enemies, who threaten our ideas of what is “mine” and take it for themselves, we will find ourselves enriched.  This is contrary to everything we think we “know” to be true.  We are taught to take care of our own.  We are taught to stand up for ourselves and insist on getting what is ours, what we deserve.  But through Jesus’ life of service, through Jesus’ willingness to die, and ultimately through Jesus’ resurrection, what the gospels show us is completely opposite of this thinking.  “The first shall be last.”  “Those who wish to be first, must be servants of all.”  “whoever loses their life for me will find it.”    These are Jesus’ words.  These are mirrored in his actions.  We “win” only by losing.  We gain only by giving.  Whenever we hog things for ourselves (and again, I mean this at a community level as much if not more so than at the individual level), we are risking everything.  It is only through sharing, giving and loving that we will gain our lives back, that we will find wholeness, that we will find healing.  Jesus wants us to give, wants us to share, wants us to take care of each other in every way: that everyone has the care they need, that everyone has enough income to survive, that everyone has a safe place to live, food to eat, health and well-being.  Jesus wants all of this for everyone, and he wants that not just because he loves those who don’t have enough (though he does!), but also for those of us who have so much more than we need; because if we fail to give, we will fail to receive.  If we fail to love, we will lose our lives.  Rights are always surrounded by responsibilities.  We are called to be stewards for one another.  And until we learn that, we will not ever be whole. 

C.S. Lewis said it this way (in The Four Loves):

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one...Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.

                We can see how we as a community must behave.  The same applies for us as individuals, even though this was not the original intention.  I think about Father Gregory Boyle in his work that he documents in Tattoos on the Heart.  He works with gangs in LA and what he does is create work places for those in gangs, places where these young people who have been enemies in rival gangs, are working together, learning to love each other, caring for each other.  They stop being enemies because they become human beings to one another.  He told the story of two people in rival gangs, one of whom ended up in the hospital because of Gang action.  The member of the other gang at first was really tough and said, “I’m glad that happened to him.”  But later, he told Father Boyle, “You tell him that x, from rival gang y hopes he gets better.”  Father Boyle continues,

               “Sometimes you are thrown into each other’s jurisdiction, and that feels better than living, as the Buddhists say, in the ‘illusion of separateness.’  It is in this place where we judge the other and feel the impossibility of anything getting bridged.  The gulf too wide and the gap too distant, the walls grow higher and we forget who we are meant to be to each other.  Somewhere, in the jurisdictional locale where judgment used to claim us, a remarkable commonality rushes in, and the barriers that exclude are dismantled.(p133)…No question gets asked of me more than… ‘What’s it like to have enemies working together?’  The answer; it is almost always tense at first.  A homie will beg for a job, and perhaps I have an opening at the Bakery.  ‘But you’re gonna have to work with X,Y, and Z’ naming enemies already working there.  He thinks a bit and invariably will say, ‘I’ll work with him, but I’m not gonna talk to him.’  In the early days this would unsettle me.  Until I discovered that it always becomes impossible to demonize someone you know.” (142)

               I want to end by sharing with you a story that Barb passed on to me:  

I was at the corner grocery store buying some early potatoes... I noticed a small boy, delicate of bone and feature, ragged but clean, hungrily apprising a basket of freshly picked green peas.

I paid for my potatoes but was also drawn to the display of fresh green peas. I am a pushover for creamed peas and new potatoes.

Pondering the peas, I couldn't help overhearing the conversation between Mr. Miller (the store owner) and the ragged boy next to me.

'Hello Barry, how are you today?'

'H'lo, Mr. Miller. Fine, thank ya. Jus' admirin' them peas. They sure look good'

'They are good, Barry. How's your Ma?' 

'Fine. Gittin' stronger alla' time.' 

'Good. Anything I can help you with?' 

'No, Sir. Jus' admirin' them peas.' 

'Would you like to take some home?' asked Mr. Miller.

'No, Sir. Got nuthin' to pay for 'em with.'

'Well, what have you to trade me for some of those peas?'

'All I got's my prize marble here.'

'Is that right? Let me see it', said Miller.

'Here 'tis. She's a dandy.'

'I can see that. Hmm mmm, only thing is this one is blue and I sort of go for red. Do you have a red one like this at home?' the store owner asked.

'Not zackley but almost.'

'Tell you what. Take this sack of peas home with you and next trip this way let me look at that red marble'. Mr. Miller told the boy

'Sure will. Thanks Mr. Miller.'

Mrs. Miller, who had been standing nearby, came over to help me.

With a smile she said, 'There are two other boys like him in our community, all three are in very poor circumstances. Jim just loves to bargain with them for peas, apples, tomatoes, or whatever. When they come back with their red marbles, and they always do, he decides he doesn't like red after all and he sends them home with a bag of produce for a green marble or an orange one, when they come on their next trip to the store.'

I left the store smiling to myself, impressed with this man. A short time later I moved to Colorado, but I never forgot the story of this man, the boys, and their bartering for marbles.

Several years went by, each more rapid than the previous one.  Just recently I had occasion to visit some old friends in that Idaho community and while I was there learned that Mr. Miller had died. They were having his visitation that evening and knowing my friends wanted to go, I agreed to accompany them. Upon arrival at the mortuary we fell into line to meet the relatives of the deceased and to offer whatever words of comfort we could.

Ahead of us in line were three young men. One was in an army uniform and the other two wore nice haircuts, dark suits and white shirts...all very professional looking. They approached Mrs. Miller, standing composed and smiling by her husband's casket.

Each of the young men hugged her, kissed her on the cheek, spoke briefly with her and moved on to the casket. Her misty light blue eyes followed them as, one by one; each young man stopped briefly and placed his own warm hand over the cold pale hand in the casket. Each left the mortuary awkwardly, wiping his eyes.

Our turn came to meet Mrs. Miller. I told her who I was and reminded her of the story from those many years ago and what she had told me about her husband's bartering for marbles. With her eyes glistening, she took my hand and led me to the casket.

'Those three young men who just left were the boys I told you about.

They just told me how they appreciated the things Jim 'traded' them. Now, at last, when Jim could not change his mind about color or size....they came to pay their debt.'

'We've never had a great deal of the wealth of this world,' she confided, 'but right now, Jim would consider himself the richest man in Idaho ...'

With loving gentleness she lifted the lifeless fingers of her deceased husband. Resting underneath were three exquisitely shined red marbles. (from Whisper This... Not to Your Horse, To Yourself by Smokie Brannaman)

               This is love.  Caring for those who cannot care for themselves.  Offering not just needs, but in this case not taking away their sense of self by denying them the ability to help “pay” for what they needed.  We are given opportunities to love, even those we don’t like, every single day.  Our job is simple.  Not easy.  But simple.  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  All that simple.  All that hard.

Happy Birthday, Dear Daughter, during this odd time...

     Today is my eldest daughter's 20th birthday.  This was going to be her "big" birthday.  I know, usually it's 21 that's the biggie.  But Jasmyn is turning 20 on the 20th of May in the year 2020.  She's been anticipating this as the "big" birthday for years, and thinking through the specifics of this one for the last year: what she wanted to do (invite some of her friends to come out to CA to celebrate with her), what she wanted as a gift for this special day (the promise of a mom-daughter trip up to some place she could really see the stars), where she wanted to go to have dinner with family as well as friends, what kind of dessert she wanted me to make.  Even the last thing on the list hasn't worked out: we get our foods from Imperfect Foods.  Generally I love what they do.  But this time they left off an entire box of the foods we ordered which unfortunately included milk, eggs, and flour among other things.  This usually arrives late Tuesday, so we didn't know we wouldn't have these things until about 10PM last night. I called them about this mistake and they are "getting back to me" which probably means they will just discount the box.  That doesn't help me today, however. Wednesday is the day we record our worship services, so I just don't have time to stand in the long grocery store line to get the items we need to make her dinner and dessert.  I could go on, but you get the point.  It's just disappointing.  Today is disappointing, for my daughter, which somehow makes it doubly disappointing for me.  As I've said to all of you many times, grief seems to bring up past griefs.  Trauma brings up old traumas.  So this little thing, of a birthday not being what it should be, feels much bigger for me than it should, no doubt.  I woke up under a cloud, one that I will have to try to shake off before recording your service for Sunday morning, but a cloud, none the less.
      I know that many of you are thinking "wow, that is such a little thing compared to what many are suffering" and you are right in that.  It is a very little thing in the big picture.  We have a house, we have work, we have our family healthy and whole.  We have church, extended family, friends, we have community (even though we cannot gather yet), we are blessed today with bird song and sunshine, the flowers are in bloom and it is a beautiful day.  I am very aware that this little thing is just that, a little thing.  
     But I am also giving myself permission, as I give it to you, to feel what you feel this day.  Grief during this time when things are not what they would be, could be, should be, is an appropriate emotion.  Sorrow for things that our loved ones have lost makes sense, even if it is not as big as what others suffer.  We don't make it better for them by denying our own pain in the midst of this.  If anything, our own senses of loss can give us a glimpse, an opportunity for understanding and compassion for what others are going through as well.  
       So I share this with you for three reasons:  First, to let you know I understand.  I understand the feelings of grief and loss that you are also experiencing.  This is a hard time.  And it is okay to name it as such.  Second, I extend this as an invitation to be gentle with yourself around your own feelings.  God has given us our feelings as a gift, and we are called to experience all that it is to be human.  I realize our culture tells us to "buck up", but we have the psalms to show us another way: one of being genuinely and humanly authentic.  Denying our feelings and our reality is, at some level, pushing God away, who is the author of all feelings and experiences.  Finally, my own experience is that acknowledging the grief and pain often makes way for the feelings of joy to return.  I think about the movie "Inside Out" in which it was sorrow that opened the door for healing and joy.  So allow yourself these feelings too.  Move through them, rather than avoiding them.  See what doors of feelings, ideas, thoughts and creative solutions are opened on the other side.
     Happy Birthday, my dear 20 year old girl.  
     I am looking towards next year for a better celebration.  
     For the rest of you, love and peace this day.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The role of pastor during crisis, especially when it is personal.

           During this challenging time I have found myself reflecting on what it is to be a pastor going through struggles, hard times, and personal challenges.  When my family was going through our terrible crisis time, almost ten years ago now, I was fortunate to have a really strong friend and colleague network.  I additionally had support people in the form of a counselor and a spiritual director.  I had community and support which were essential and for which I am deeply grateful.
         I was also pastoring a church that was going through some of what we were experiencing as well.  And the balance of self-care while trying to care for the congregation was tricky.  I know the way I handled it worked for many, and for a few it really didn't.  Part of this stems from the various and different understandings of what pastors should be.  For some people pastors should be above, distant, separate.  In this view, they lead from a place solely of strength and separateness.  The image that comes to mind when I think of this view of pastor is of a man in long dark robes standing in the elevated pulpit of a large congregation preaching in a very academic way that never involves the sharing of personal stories.  An opposing image of pastor is that discussed by Henri Nouwen when he talks about the "wounded healer".  In this image, the pastor is very, very real and teaches from his/her own experiences.  This kind of pastor is transparent about what they have experienced, are experiencing, and shares from a very personal place where God has been and is in our lives, starting with where God has shown up in their own lives.  That pastor teaches from the example not of a super-human, but of a real human; one who is on the way, like every other person of faith, and one who wrestles and struggles with God like Jacob, one who is left limping at times, but serves, teaches, and loves from that very human, real, sometimes obviously broken place.
           I choose to be that second kind of pastor.  I strive for transparency and authenticity in all that I do.  Of course, there are cautions here.  We still need to present in such a way that our parishioners do not end up feeling dumped on, imposed upon, that they still feel held and cared for and loved, that we are still able to do our jobs of shepherding and loving our folk.  Most of our time should not be about our own problems.  Most of our work should not center on our own needs.  We still need to take care of our folk and focus on their needs.  Our own sharing should be from that place of teaching, walking with others, showing God's face through struggles.  Our folk should not feel they have to take care of us.  But therein lies the challenge.
         One of the things I say to my parishioners who are struggling with needing help of their own is that "you do us a favor by allowing us to serve you."  It is hard for many of my congregants who have spent a lifetime in service to others to now accept that they sometimes need help.  I think this is especially true for pastors.  How do we allow others to help us in a way that helps them feel they have been of use, that recognizes all of us as equally loved children of God, but does not make our parishioners feel imposed upon or resentful, or that we do not have the space, energy or ability to care for them?  And again, unfortunately, that place will be different for each parishioner.
         During our hardest time, many of my congregants began sharing with me at a deeper level as they saw that I knew what pain really was and as they trusted me more because of it.  I am so grateful for the deepening of those relationships.  In addition, one of the small groups I led at my church was our praise team.  This was an amazing group of very active parishioners, many of them leaders in the church, who came together to sing and lead our weekly praise service.  As part of each weekly rehearsal, we had a devotional time that usually involved reflection and sharing.  We were a very close group, and I participated as well as led, in the reflection and sharing time.  I think for most of the people in that group this was helpful.  I still remain close to the folk in that group, connected to the people in that praise team.  Through that sharing and reflection time together we became a real community of people learning and deepening in our faith journeys together.  They were part of my recovery, and I believe that I was part of theirs as well.
        But this did not work for everyone in the group.  There was one woman who sang with us for a time who left the group.  She reflected to me that she wondered why every pastor they had, had gone through some kind of crisis, and she just wanted to be part of a congregation where the pastor never went through crisis.  In other words, she valued that first kind of pastor, the more distant kind.  We know this because the truth is that none of us get through this life without crisis.  None of us do.  Especially if we love the way pastors are suppose to love, we will experience pain and hurt.  And the image and belief that someone should lead who has never been and will never experience crisis is really a hope that when they do experience crisis, it will not be shared, known or acknowledged in any way by the congregation.  I felt sadness when she left, but I also was hopeful for her that she would eventually find the kind of pastor she clearly needed: one who was less transparent and more "ivory tower" in their style of leadership.
        The balance remains tricky.  I am aware of congregants who have been hurt when their pastor went through an illness and did not allow the congregation to help them.  And I am aware of congregants who do not want to offer care back to the pastor who serves them.  In seminary we were told that we need people outside of our congregation who can really listen and support us, and I find this to be true, even when I am being transparent and real with my own congregation.  When I share personal stories from the pulpit, I try to share what has already been resolved and healed, and I mostly receive gratitude and thanks from the congregation.  But every once in a while someone (usually not a member) will make the comment that "perhaps you are being too open".  Again, different people will want and need different things from their pastors.
        Ultimately, I think we pastors need to evaluate the real reason for the sharing that we do: are we sharing this because we believe it will help others to hear our journeys and our stories, how we walked them and where we found God in the midst of struggle?  Or are we sharing because we are needing help?  And if it is the second, is that help really best sought from our parishioners?  Or would it be better to find that help and support outside of the congregation?  And if we are needing help that the congregation can and wants to give, how do we make sure it does not limit or affect negatively the help that we are striving to give back to them?
         The point of this post?  Maybe it is once again that life is complicated, that pastoring is complicated, and that we are all on this journey together, though in different roles, striving to be the best, to be the most true, and to be the most faithful and loving we can be.  I am grateful to all of you who have allowed me to walk with you in your journeys, and I am grateful that you have walked with me in mine.  I am also grateful for your gentle corrections and encouragements to grow.  I hope that I am as gentle and enrouraging of you.