Saturday, October 31, 2015

Different places, good and bad. Or, missing Ohio, despite the gifts of being home.

Truly, it is good to be "home".  The weather is better for me psychologically as well as physically (since my primary exercise is walking and I can do that almost year round out here).  It is good to be with family and friends I've known for years.  It is a gift to be in communities that used to mean so much to me and to find that I am still welcomed and wanted as if I had never left.  I love my new church community.  There is much that is good.

However, there is also a lot that I miss about Ohio.  The fall trees, the green, the Metroparks, the lakes, the more reasonable pace of life, the fact that people are not so mobile, stay where they are and therefore tend to be more connected.  There are many people I miss deeply.

But the truth is that this evening, Halloween, I missed Ohio more deeply and fully than I yet have. Halloween in our neighborhood in Ohio was an amazing community event.  Despite the cold (often well below freezing on this Hallowed Eve's night), our neighbors would often be outside with their portable fire pits, sitting in their driveways, wrapped up near these blazing fires, handing out candy to the parade of kids who walked by.  Houses were decorated, Halloween was restricted to a two hour window, and there were only a few neighborhood houses that did not participate.  We got to know our neighbors on Halloween, and my kids would be greeted by name at the different houses, as well as by many of the other kids from their schools whom they knew and would pass by or walk around with, talking animatedly the whole way about their costumes and candy and Halloween traditions. Some houses would hand out treats (popcorn, etc) for the adults as well.  I loved Halloween in Ohio. I loved dressing up myself, but mostly, I loved the amazing community event that was Halloween.  I didn't like the cold, I'll grant you that, but the evening was a wonderful way to celebrate neighborhood.

In contrast, tonight it was a balmy 70 degrees outside - wonderful weather to be outside, sitting, talking, visiting with folk.  We live in a very nice neighborhood, "one of the best" in our area, we've been told again and again.  And yet, as we headed out the door I saw what I had remembered from when I lived in the Bay Area before, that instead of it being the rare house that had its lights OFF, it was a very rare house that had its lights ON.  We live on a court that has about 20 houses.  Three of them had their lights on.  We walked to a nearby court.  Same thing.  We did not see any other kids outside until the end when we saw one other family walk by.  One.  Family.  This was not a community event.  This was a "turn off the lights and hide from the beggars" evening.  And I found my heart aching.  Aching for those neighborhood connections, aching for that kind of community, aching for the warmth and connections and celebration of childhood that Halloween could be and is in other places.

My kids had worked hard on their costumes, putting them together from things we had around the house. (We don't tend to buy costumes.  I want them to be creative). They'd worked on them for weeks, preparing for this evening.  They were excited and talked about nothing else all day.  But I found all of us came back from trick or treating quiet, cranky, disappointed.  They don't care about the candy.  We actually have a "candy fairy" who offers them a present in exchange for their candy if they so choose - a choice they always make because they have inherited from their mom a lack of enthusiasm for sweet things (chocolate excepted, of course!).  It isn't the candy.  It's the community and the creativity of costumes that they look forward to.  But only a few people saw their costumes, and they saw none others except this one family with their two little kids in store-bought Cinderella and Star Wars costumes.  We came back quiet.  And missing our neighborhood in Ohio.

I believe we need to be the world we want.  So I have a year to figure out now how to recreate community around Halloween for my kids.  Maybe we will have a party for their friends.  Maybe we will host something at church.  I don't know yet.  I do know that it was a gift to have those Halloween experiences in Ohio.  And that missing that this year reminds me how important community events really are.  For tonight, we are quiet.  And tomorrow I will start to dream bigger.  Next year we will create community.  And we will plan better, knowing that things here are different.  Communities have different gifts and different challenges.  There have been many gifts in moving back.  But tonight we remembered one of the challenges.  Ohio community, don't change.  Keep being what you are because you have no idea what a gift that is.  California community, we have some work to do. But together, I think we can create something beautiful here as well.  To all communities, we have gifts and challenges.  Other communities have things to teach us, and with experiences other places, we can learn and grow as well.  That is a gift.  Thanks be to God.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thoughts on the Homeless Population

Your biggest fear about the homeless is absolutely true.  I hate to be the one to tell you this, to cause more fear and pain for you.  But until we face this reality, there is nothing we can do to move through our fear or figure out a solution to the problem.  So I will tell you the truth that we are so afraid to name, but that is true, beyond a shadow of a doubt:

It is absolutely true that the homeless are no different from you or I.

There it is.  A terrifying reality, but a true one.

Like us, some homeless are educated and others aren’t.  Like us, some homeless struggle with addictions and some do not.  Like us, some homeless struggle with mental illness and some do not.  Like us, some have tempers and some do not.  Like us, some are violent and some are not.  Like us, some homeless work and some do not.  Some have children, some have elderly parents that they worry about.  Some have skills, some don’t.  Some have had hard childhoods and others haven't. And so here is the corollary that is even scarier for most of us:

It is absolutely true that you or I could easily become the homeless person we fear so deeply. 

The one thing that separates us is that we who are not homeless have resources, and usually those include a support network for when times are hard, whereas the homeless don’t.  That is the only difference.  And sometimes even that difference is a slim, fleeting and tenuous one.

For two and a half months this summer, the children and I were homeless. We did not have a home. I became all too aware that the difference, again, was that we had resources which included and continue to include a support system.  Therefore we were lucky and we had a place to sleep each night.  We bopped around from house to house, dragging our bags, not in a grocery cart, but in my car (another resource that I have that many homeless do not, though again, that, too, is not universal). We did not experience what it was to have to sleep on the street.  We did not experience fear of the police, of being moved from whatever shelter we found, of being attacked, or of having our things stolen.  We did not experience hunger or worrying about where we would eat next.  I am not unaware that our experience was completely different from what the normal homeless population experiences.  

But I did learn some things.  I learned how hard it is to feel ungrounded, displaced, and without a place that is "ours" to go home to.  I learned that it is extremely stressful and hard on kids (and adults) to be moved around from place to place, to not be able to relax, to feel that we can't breathe or we might break something that wasn't ours.  I learned how easy it was for things to go missing as we moved from place to place, sometimes expensive or irreplaceable things, and how few things we could actually manage to take with us as we moved around so often.  I learned what things, therefore, were "necessary" and what things were really luxuries.  I learned that each day was an unknown, each day the schedule was unpredictable, each day involved chaos, and stress, and confusion.  I learned that when all you have is each other, you do bond closer together, but it doesn't mean you are always nice to one another.  Stress causes crankiness, it just does.

Without a home address I was unable to register my kids for school. Without a home address I was unable to get a California driver's license.  Without a home address I couldn't even obtain a library card, or a grocery discount card.  Without the California driver's license, other doors were closed to me as well.  I couldn't get anything notarized, I couldn't set up a bank account, I couldn't get local checks.  In each of those cases I not only had to give an address, but had to provide "proof of residency", something I simply could not provide.  There was no address to forward my mail to. There was no place to receive my bills.  Without "free wifi" places like Starbucks, I really would have struggled to do these basic things like paying bills and staying in touch with those who could help us along the way. Without a cell phone I really would have been sunk in terms of how to connect with the resources that would help us to get "un"-homeless.  Without my car...well, there is just nothing we would have been able to do.

Financially, moving across the country, trying to get into housing, dealing with still having a house to sell in Ohio - none of that would have been possible without the financial help of my extended family.  And of that, too, I was all too aware.  I had a job here.  I had it immediately and that, too, is a difference from what our homeless brothers and sisters often experience.  And yet even with that job, I needed help financially.  I learned it is extremely expensive to be homeless, and to move, and to set up in a new place.  If something had happened to my parents during that time?  All of us would have been in serious trouble.

I learned.  I learned what I said above.  The only difference between us and the homeless is that we have a support network with resources including the generosity of others that allowed us to be okay, each and every day.  I learned what I have said before, that to those who have, even more will be given, and that to those who have not, even what they have gets taken away (NOT taken by God, but by our culture which fears and distrusts the "have nots" to such an extent that they are simply not allowed to get what they need).

I was all too aware, as I dragged my children with me everywhere I went of places that had policies that discriminated against the homeless and others who are "without".  If a place made a "no children" policy or a "no loitering" policy then my children and I could not be there.  We had places to go, family to be with, friends to visit.  Still, without a home, there were times when we meandered, when I felt we could not impose on someone and went to find places to be during the day.  We went to parks and libraries.  But I wondered how we would have managed if we had not had places to stay at night.

We want to put the homeless in a separate category.  We want to believe it is their fault they are without, and that if they had planned, or had worked, or had...whatever it is, that they would not be homeless.  We want to believe it is their "karma" that has led them there and that, therefore, we have no responsibility to help them.

But I say to you again what I said before, there is no difference between the homeless and us except for resources.  And if we were to care for one another as we are called to do, there would not be homelessness in the way there is now (there still might be a few who choose not to have a home - that is a different situation and is such a tiny percentage of the population that it is not what I am focusing on here).  If we were to care for one another in the way we are called, then we would not have to fear the homeless because we would not have to fear being "without" ourselves.  We would know that we would be okay because the community would help us get back on our feet.  We would know that our kids would be okay.  But that is not the way things are now.  In our fear, we see them as "separate", as "other" and as "not like us". And so, in our fear, we keep them ever more "separate", "other" and "not like us" even when this is a myth we are buying, selling and promoting.  This myth escalates the problem.

We won't get through this treating people as different or as other.  We won't grow or be safe until we truly get that we are all one and that when you hurt, I hurt too; or until we understand that, as Seal put it so eloquently, "I may not know what you're going through, but time is the difference between me and you." We won't know community and love and peace until we treat all people with the kind of care and compassion we are called to embody.

I am grateful for my limited experience of "homelessness" just for the reminder of how close we really are to being truly homeless and truly without.  May it inspire more compassion within me as I encounter those who "have not" each day. I wish compassion and understanding for you as well.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Anger, Road Rage, etc.

I saw an encounter on the road today.  Not atypical, actually.  But since I was off to the side, wasn't driving and could give it my full attention, I saw it more fully than I might otherwise have done.  The drop off process at my kids' school is, well, it's pretty much a "drive where you can, drop off when you can, get back into traffic when possible" kind of process.  Since there are no buses out here, it is pretty crazy actually.  Often there end up being three lanes of cars in the one lane, each dropping off kids in the middle of the road, while others are trying to get out and back into traffic.  To say it's not orchestrated well would be a huge understatement.  Truly, I don't think there have been any attempts at orchestration at all.  It's an insane free-for-all and, inevitably, there are conflicts in this process. It's amazing that no kids have been hit through this so far.  And I find myself holding my breath each day as I watch Jonah try to get out of the car and into the school, just praying that he, and all the other kids, will actually make it.  So this morning, no surprise, a conflict arose. Without trying to go into details about a very confused and confusing situation, let's just say that two of the three lanes of cars (which were actually all in one lane) had dropped off kids at the same time, and both where trying to pull back into the one lane at the same exact time.  They almost collided, but didn't.  What was interesting to me though was that one of the drivers became irate, started screaming his head off, calling the other driver an idiot and other names I choose not to print here, and eventually gunned his car in rage, almost hitting two or three other cars as well as an older man trying to walk into the school, and squealed off cursing the whole way.

I thought about how we choose what we contribute to the world and that this morning that driver contributed anger, hurt, and pain rather than grace, compassion and patience.

I thought about the other driver and prayed that being yelled at like that did not ruin her day.

I thought about the fact that none of us know what either of those drivers had and were experiencing this morning, this week, this month or this year and that we therefore just don't know what led up to that rage, nor how it affected both once it was expressed.

I thought about how we try to teach our kids to control their rage reactions by using words - not attacking words, but good words, words that tell how we are feeling rather than words that attack the other.  And yet sometimes we fail to model that for our children, and some even seem to grow up without learning these lessons for themselves.

But mostly, I found myself thinking about anger, about rage.  What is it in those moments that causes us to forget the humanity of the other person?  What is it about being in our cars that allows us to classify all the other drivers as either maniacs (those who drive faster and wilder than we do), or idiots (those who drive more slowly and cautiously than we do)?  My guess is that if I were to ask that angry driver if he ever made mistakes in his car he would have to agree that of course he did.  Does that then make him an idiot?  No, it makes him a person who is human, as we all are.  Why, then, are we unable to have compassion for other drivers who make errors in their cars?  More to the point in this situation, why are we unwilling or unable to see our own contributions to difficult driving situations?  Both cars were trying to get through a tough situation.  Both cars failed to look at the other before pulling out. One was not at fault.  BOTH were.  And yet, one was able to own her part.  One was not.  Why? Why is it so hard to just admit we make mistakes too?  And then, under it all, why do situations like this cause rage at all?  Maybe he was afraid for a moment of his car being hit and that fear became anger. But many times people are rude, angry, rageful in their cars when there is no danger to either body or property.  And then I wonder, why is anger our first and strongest reaction in those situations?  The other person was not trying to hurt us.  The other person was not intentionally making errors or was not intentionally the person who was in the wrong place when we made an error.  Rage just seems like the American "go to" feeling right now, especially in our cars.

So, here is my lecture for the world this day:
Rage is dangerous.  And I think we would do well to work towards a different "go to" feeling.

The expression of that rage in these childish ways is unhelpful.  We would do better to go back to kindergarten lessons.  Take a breath.  Step back.  And then, use your words productively; "I feel x when you do y because of z".

We really do choose how we contribute to our world each day, and it would be good to strive to contribute more compassion, grace, patience and understanding.  We seem to be in short supply as a world lately.  It would be good to practice these and strive in all things to contribute more of these positive things to those around us.

When we are struggling to do that, we need to try to remember that the other person is human.  We don't know what they are going through this day. And chances are, if there is that much anger, they are having a hard time of it.  We can strive therefore to have compassion for them.

People in their cars are still people.  They are not all "maniacs" and "idiots".  They are people. Others on the journey.  Imperfect.  But trying.  That person you are looking at could be your mother, or your brother, or your future spouse.  Try to remember that.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - Protestant Reformation

Jeremiah 31:27
Matthew 6:9-13
Luke 11:1-4

Today is the day of the year that we celebrate the reformation and I’d like to talk to you a bit about the reformation, what came from that, and why we do some of the things we now do in worship.  When I was at seminary, my professor described the reformation this way.  He took a bureau full of clothes and he said that that bureau was in essence the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  My professor said that Luther basically approached the bureau by opening each drawer and pulling out the things he found offensive, problematic, ungodly or unchristian and left the rest of the bureau intact.  That, then, became the Lutheran church – very similar to the Catholic Church except for a few things that were removed or changed.
Calvin and Zwingly, the founders of the Presbyterian Church, on the other hand, approached the bureau that was the church very differently.  Instead of pulling out the offensive articles, these two emptied the bureau completely, dumping everything onto the bed, and only putting back into the bureau those things which they found justified and upheld by scripture.  This then describes for us the Presbyterian Church…only those things which could be supported by our scriptures.
That meant that everything for Presbyterians was created, in a sense, again, from the beginning.  None the less, there is a lot that is similar with all of our protestant churches that arose through the reformation.  Some of those things we still value highly, and a few of them we have let slide.  Some of the key things that the Protestant reformation focused on was:
Priesthood of all believers.  This means that there is a recognition that all of us are called.  Pastors are not somehow better or more holy.  We are all equally called by God as God’s children.  We have a unique call to the ministry.  But you also have unique calls.  And together, we make up the church.  The ministers of the church are all the people.   The pastor of the church fulfills his or her call in a particular way. 
As a result of this reminder that all are called, many things changed.  One of the things that changed was the ROBES that the clergy wore.  Before the protestant reformation, the robes the priests wore were to signify that they were different, that they had a special calling that others didn’t.  But the robes changed for protestants.  For Presbyterians, they became academic gowns.  This signified that again, we were only different by what we had been trained to do.
Another important change was that the scriptures, prayers, etc before the reformation were written and read only in Latin.  That meant that only people educated in particular ways had access to the Biblical materials.  With the Protestant reformation, and the reminder that all people are God's children, it became important to recognize that God spoke to everyone through scripture and therefore it was very important for people to be able to read the scriptures in their own languages. Through the reformation it was recognized that people did not have to "go through" priests or saints to connect to God.  They could pray to God on their own, read scripture on their own, be in relationship with God directly.
Songs were set to accessible tunes in the music of the people of the time.  Catholic and Orthodox practice at the time meant that songs were  sung FOR The people – they were performed, rather than people singing the songs themselves.  But all of this, too, was changed.  Kierkegaard talked about worship as a theater.  He said that we tended to think of God as the prompterm the preacher and worship leaders as the performers and the congregation as the audience.  But he said this was wrong.  Instaed, God is the theatergoer.  The speaker (and worship leaders) are the prompters and the congregants are the performers.  Everything in worship then is done BY the people, though encouraged by the pastor and the other worship leaders.  And everything in worship is done FOR God.  
Much of this we still value, and yet there have been some reversions in this.  Going back to the beginning of this list – robes.  While originally, the robes of Presbyterians were academic gowns, making a statement that we are NOT different from everyone else – that we are called just as anyone is called to a profession, not separate, not better, not ABOVE, but a professional outfit, now, it has once again become a mark of being separate.  It distinguishes us, when the original point was to state that we are not “other” and not different. 
Reading the Bible in our own language.  Yes, our scriptures have become written in our own language now.  However, at the same time, we have hung on to archaic language that is no longer the language of the people in things like the way we say the Lord’s Prayer.  As we read in today’s scriptures, the way we say the Lord’s Prayer is NOT an accurate translation into today’s language of the people.  But we have become used to the way we do it.  It brings comfort at some level to say it in the words our parents used and our parents’ parents used.  There is value in that.  But there is also a cost.  The cost is that the children do not know what they are saying.  The prayer does not have the same meaning for them that it does for us.  And while we can talk about what these words mean with the kids, saying our most common prayers in THEIR language, in the language they use also sends an important message that God is not so lofty as to not want to hear from children.  God is here, and accessible and open to hearing even from our kids.  Similarly with some of our other songs and prayers.  When we use words like “thee”, “thou”, “thine” we set God off.  And again, while the message in that has value for some people, that God is above and holy and other, it also sends a message of inaccessibility.  The very message, in other words, that the protestant reformation was working to challenge.
Church music…Luther put his words to tunes that were similar to bar tunes, the tunes that the regular people listened to during their regular days.  How many of you listen to hymns other times than when you are in church?  Hmm….
But to me one of the bigger problems that the reformation was addressing was that people had become unaware any longer of why things were done the way they were done.  They had become stuck in traditions that no longer had any meaning other than a connection to what had gone on before.  So another part of what I want to do today is to talk to you about why we do some of the things we do, in church.  For example, what is the passing of the peace? 
Presbyterian Church is a constitutional church which means we have two books that tell us who we are and why we do what we do.  The first is our book of confessions, the second is our book of order.  This is what the book of order says the passing of the peace is:  “It is important in worship that we take the opportunity to seek and to offer forgiveness for hurts, misunderstandings and broken relationships among ourselves and that we respond to God’s act of reconciliation by exchanging signs and words of reconciliation and of Christ’s peace through the passing of the peace.”  (2.6001b)  So what does this mean?  The passing of the peace is a mending–of-hurts time, an act of forgiveness time, a reconciliation time.  In other words, the people we might approach during this time are those with whom we feel the need for reconciliation, or for offering or seeking forgiveness.  You can pass the peace on to others as well, but it is as a sign that God forgives and reconciles everyone.  You notice what it ISN’T?  It isn’t a “greeting time”.    In most churches it follows on the heels of our prayer of confession and acceptance of God’s grace because it is a sign that we have taken to heart God’s grace and now want to pass that on to each other.  And for this it is a wonderful gift to one another that we can touch and recognize the grace that is literally, physically given to us.
Because we are all the participants in worship, when the choir sings or when the children “perform”, they are praying or offering up to God on our behalf the prayers, praise, celebration, declaration of God’s love and our commitment to God.  So one of the questions that has come my way has to do with clapping in response to these offerings.  Is clapping in worship appropriate and why or why not?
To me the answer is this: if you are clapping as a way of saying, “Amen!  Yes, that’s my prayer!  Well said on our behalf!” then I think it is absolutely appropriate to clap in worship.  Calvin, though, says that if anything is not referencing God, then it should not be included, so our clapping is best when it honors God rather than the people who are offering the prayer on our behalf.
In worship, faith and celebration are not done for you.  You are the participants, and we are all equals before God.  As Jesus tells us in Matthew, “you have only one Master and all of you are brothers and sisters”.  You are the ones here to worship and honor God.  This is your performance or offering to God.

The bottom line, through all of this, is that everything in worship should be to God’s glory.  Every banner, every song, every prayer should be focused on God.  If a piece of art or an article in the sanctuary is focused on anything else – anything else, it is not appropriate in this space.  If something takes the place of prayer, it is not appropriate.  Our musicians work hard to prepare because they want to offer their best to God – and that is appropriate.  So, in light of this, what does it mean that we offer up announcements, joys and concerns during worship?  These, too, are prayers for the people of God.  They are celebrations of God’s acting in our lives.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Wearing our Scars like Medals

I had a doctor's appointment last week.  It wasn't for any medical issue.  I was just setting up "care" under a doctor out here so that if I do get sick, I can get in to see someone.  We did the usual "intake" interview where I list past issues (not many) and current concerns (also not many).  But as I left I realized that it was the first time in the last 4 1/2 years that during a "care" conversation I didn't share anything about what my family has experienced in these last few years.  And I will admit, it felt ... different.

I found myself thinking about some of the conversations I've had with the male people in my life lately who have shown me with great pride the physical scars they carry, some from surgeries, some from injuries, some from great adventures, ALL of them marks of having endured, having survived, having gone through something and come out the other side.  My son, but others I know as well, wear their physical scars like medals.  Those scars show the person to have really lived, to have really suffered life in some way, and to have sustained some kind of hardship intact.  The scar is a sign of strength as well as a sign of being a person who has met life head on, participated in it, and become better because of it.  At some level those scars have become, not just part of their history, but part of their identity.  "Sam" is the person who survived that injury. "George" is the person who experienced this physical trauma.  Both are the persons of strength (again) and character, who made it through.

I realized that at some level, I have carried my scars, my emotional traumas and experiences in the same way.  I am the person who lived through hell.  I am the person who carried my family while going through my own personal nightmare.  I am the person who continued to pastor a church and work a job and a half and raise my kids as a solo mom while enduring the unthinkable in terms of public scandal, shame, shock, disappointment, judgment, rejection, loss and trauma.  I've worn these scars tentatively because I am all too aware that, first of all, everyone experiences hardships of one kind or another, and second, what I've gone through is still nothing compared to what some survive - war, hunger, chronic pain, torture, assault, etc.  I've worn my scars tentatively, but I have worn them. They, too, have marked me in a way that I've not only worn, but which have helped define me over these last few years.

To have left that doctor interview without sharing these stories marked a change for me.  And as I walked away, I realized that this was momentous in many ways.  To not only have declined to tell my story, but frankly, to not even have thought about it until I was leaving marked a significant change. It put that story squarely in the past, no longer as something that defines me now, no longer as a part of my current experience.  Are there still scars?  No doubt.  But they are smaller now, and they have moved to less obvious places.  They no longer take up a large part of my exposed visage, of my front, of my being.  I am much more than my past, and even than my experiences, both then and now. The kids and I have survived, but more than that, we've chosen to live as people who are today free from the restraints of a past that might have defined us a few years ago.
It no longer does.
And for that I am grateful.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Unconditional Love

WARNING - HARRY POTTER SPOILER ALERT!!  If you have not read all 7 books, stop here!

I've been thinking about unconditional love.  We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We are called to love our enemies as ourselves.  We are asked to love with the kind of love God has for us, which means that we love unconditionally, want the best for the other unconditionally, work for the good of the other unconditionally, would be willing, even, to give our lives, unconditionally, for the other.

But are we really capable of doing that for others?  Truthfully, who among us loves like this?  We put conditions on our love for others.  One of the top conditions seems to be that the other loves us back. When the object of our love (any kind of love) rejects us, most of us stop loving the other, or at least try to stop loving the other.  I would take it a step further.  We move from wanting what is best for the other to truly wanting, and in some cases even actively working, for the worst for the other. We've become a people that exercises revenge on a regular basis. We enact revenge and I would say we even celebrate revenge.  Movies, songs, all lift up those who seek revenge as the heroes of our day. Songs with lines such as "I dug my keys into the side of his pretty little souped-up four wheel drive, carved my name into his leather seats...maybe next time he'll think before he cheats." This does not reflect any real kind of love at all. This is a "love" that does not care about what is best for the other, it is a "love" that cares about what is best for me and me alone. According to this love, if you hurt me, I should and will hurt you back. There is no conversation here, no forgiveness here, no working through things. There really isn't any letting go either. There is anger, there is revenge, there is no longer a concern at all about the well being of the other, the good of the other, the needs or wholeness of the other. When we are hurt, we want the one who has hurt us to hurt too.  When we are rejected, we want the one who has rejected us to suffer too.  Just to be clear, that isn't love.  It just isn't.  That is about wanting gratification, wanting to be loved, wanting to be cared for.  It is not about loving the other, caring for the other, wanting what is best for the other.

In contrast to this, I've been thinking about the character of Snape from the Harry Potter series.  The woman he is in love with rejected him for another man, a man whom Snape hated and who was truly unkind to Snape.  The woman he loves had a child by this man whom Snape hates.  And yet, Snape still would do anything for this woman, including protecting the child she had with his enemy.  Even after she has died, and there is nothing he can possibly get or gain from loving her, absolutely no chance of any return, he loves her completely.  He still works to protect her child, a child he hates, simply out of his love for her.  He loves her with the kind of unconditional love that does not seek revenge, that does not act out in anger, that does not inflict damage on the one who has broken his heart.  Snape, this unlikable, unattractive man demonstrates and models the kind of pure, unconditional love that we are called to learn, to give, and to seek.

I think about the Harry Potter stories.  And Snape, again, the most unattractive, most unlikable man, is the hero of them for me.  Yes, he is brave.  Yes, he risks and loses everything.  But he is the hero for me not for any of these reasons.  He is deeply human, and even unkind, prejudiced, mean at times. But he, and he alone, loves unconditionally in a way that I don't really see demonstrated very often in real life.

The closest many of us get to this is the way we love our children.  Even when our kids are horrible to us, we love them.  Even when our kids choose things that we deeply disagree with, most of us still love and support them.  But even there, I see and hear about parents rejecting their kids for various reasons.  The numbers of homeless teenagers, pushed out by parents is truly incredible to me.

And beyond our kids?  Can we love others with that same love that says, "I care about you no matter what"?   Can we love the person who called us names?  Can we love the person who rejected us? Can we love the person who actively worked to harm our career, our relationships, our standing in the community?  Can we love, and care about, and serve, and work for the highest good, even for the person who has declared themself our enemy and is actively seeking to destroy us?

There have been a few saints throughout time who have managed to do just this.  From my faith tradition perspective, the example of Jesus saying on the cross, "Forgive them for they know not what they do" is one such example.  But again, it seems it is mostly a very extraordinary person who is able to accomplish this.

We all want to be loved this way.  My guess is that we would all like to know that someone out there loves us for exactly who we are, with our flaws, errors, mistakes, inconsistencies, hypocrisies - all of it, no matter what.

But I have come to believe at ever deeper levels that we create the world we live in.  If we want to be loved like this, we have to start by loving others like this.  If we want to experience unconditional love, we have to be willing to offer it even to those we "hate".  If we want the world to be a place where people care about each other, even when they are hurt, and can see and work towards the good of the other, even when the other hurts us, then we need to offer that kind of love and care to others.

I think I will continue to think of Snape and the kind of love he offered in the midst of his pain. While it did not appear to come back to him during his life time, Harry did get it eventually, as evidenced by the naming of his son after Snape.  Sometimes when we offer this kind of love it won't be rewarded right away or even during our lifetimes.  But we have to start somewhere.  I want to create a world of love for my kids.  That has to start by working harder to love, unconditionally, even the unlovable. And even those who would hate me.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Wonderful Quotes

I've seen some really wonderful one liners on facebook lately.  I can't give them all the attention they deserve, but I wanted to pass on a few that I've seen recently that have caused me to pause and think..













Sunday, October 11, 2015

Today's Sermon - Sitting in the Pain

Sitting with Pain
October 11, 2015
Hebrews 4:12-16
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22: 1-15

These are hard passages that we read today.  Today’s lectionary passages are the anger, the pain, despair, the bottom-less pit, the grief of human experience. Unlike most of the rest of the year where we hear the grace, the comfort, the love or the challenge of being God’s people, today we are given the passages in which the writers feel God’s “absence” or feel betrayed somehow, abandoned, and hurt by God. These are the feelings we are least comfortable with, as a whole, in our churches. But while we are uncomfortable with these emotions, they are in our scriptures and as such they call us to take a closer look, to spend time with feelings we would otherwise wish away. Usually we reserve this look for Good Friday or Passion Sunday as we remember Jesus’ journey to the cross. But as it came up in the lectionary passage for this week, I felt that though these emotions are uncomfortable, we have a call to look at them, to honor them, and to listen for God’s words even through these words of anger, of pain, and of railing against God. 
Job had everything taken from him - his wealth, his home, his living, his children, his health. The only things that remained were his wife and several friends, but all of them told him he must have done something to deserve his pain (an accusation which is confronted and overturned by the story itself), and so their remaining presence in his life was in itself an affliction. Psalm 22 we recognize as the psalm that Jesus quoted on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” These passages reflect our deepest despair, those moments when it is hard, so hard, to feel God’s presence, when we, too, might instead feel that God has somehow forsaken us, is somehow not there.
Each of us has gone through hard times. We’ve gone through hard times individually, I know you’ve gone through hard times as a church community, and we’ve gone through hard times as a nation, and as the world. We’ve experienced losses. We’ve experienced deaths, divorces and other endings. We’ve seen our families and friends struggle to find or hold on to work, some have experienced pay cuts, we’ve gone through moves. The world is experiencing wars and droughts and climate change. Things are hard. And sometimes we feel, each one of us, that deep pain, that deep grief for what was, or what should be, or what could have been. Kierkegaard put it this way, “the most painful state of being is remembering the future…particularly the one you can never have.” I want to say that again, “the most painful state of being is remember the future…particularly the one you can never have.” We know that grief looks different for everyone, but some of the emotions people may feel in grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, pain and guilt to that list. Job and Psalm 22 reflect all of these feelings. And yet still, it is hard to be with those feelings, hard to acknowledge the grief, let alone allow ourselves the time that it takes to really experience all of it. I was with a group of pastors at one point several years ago discussing these lectionary passages. And one of the pastors wanted to include the end of Job (though it is not in this week’s lectionary) and the end of psalm 22 (also not in this week’s lectionary) because those endings are more positive. Her justification was that we cannot let our parishioners stay in the pain. But the reality was that this was more a reflection of her discomfort in sitting with the pain of those in her church. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that someone in every room is in pain, is in grief, and recognizing and naming that reality is helpful and important. But again, it does appear to be fairly normal to want to avoid it. We have sayings, trite things, that we say to one another as a way to “help” that in fact are simply ways of avoiding sitting with one another in our pain. I’d like to challenge a few of those.  Saying to someone in pain, “Remember, God never gives you more than you can handle” may comfort the comforter, but it tends to be a way of discounting the extreme pain a person is in. When you say this, the person hearing it often hears, “oh, you’re fine. No big deal. Get over it!” Or worse, if the person being told this isn’t handling it, they may add a feeling of failure to the other feelings of grief they are experiencing. “Everything happens for a reason” is also discounting. It is a way of saying, “because this is part of a great plan, you shouldn’t be upset about this.” You may believe that to be true. But saying it to someone in pain does not honor or respect the feelings they are experiencing at that moment. More importantly, these sayings make it sound like you are not willing to simply be with the other in their pain.
Henry Nouwen in his book, Out of Solitude wrote, “You might remember moments in which you were called to be with a friend who had lost a wife or husband, child or parent.  What can you say, do or propose at such a moment? There is a strong inclination to say, “Don’t cry; the one you loved is in the hands of God.” Or “Don’t be sad because there are so many good things left worth living for.” ...”Our tendency is to run away from the painful realities or to try to change them as soon as possible. But cure without care makes us into rulers, controllers, manipulators, and prevents a real community from taking shape. Cure without care makes us preoccupied with quick changes, impatient and unwilling to share each other’s burden.  And so cure can often become offending instead of liberating. It is therefore not so strange than cure is (often) refused by people in need...it is better to suffer than to lose self-respect by accepting a gift out of a non-caring hand.”
C.S. Lewis also wrote about his struggles after the death of his wife, Joy, in his book, A Grief Observed.  And he, too, wrote about these situations in which well meaning friends could not tolerate his pain. They couldn’t tolerate it, and so they tried to shove it away with trite quips.  His favorite was “Well, she will live forever in your memory.” And he found this created nothing less than an intense rage within him as he struggled to grasp, daily, that she was no longer alive, no longer with him in a way that he could recognize while he was in the midst of his deepest grief. To tell him that she would live in his memory did nothing for him but make him feel completely alone in his grief - in other words, it had exactly the opposite effect of what was undoubtedly intended. It did not make him feel better. It made him feel misunderstood, isolated, alone.
It is hard for us to experience our own pain and it is hard for us to be with others in their pain. Pain hurts. It is not comfortable. And in this fast paced, instant gratification society, we don’t want to feel pain. We want to make it go away, for everyone, right now.
But we now know, from a psychological perspective, that grief that is not really felt, pain that is not really experienced does not go away. If we really care about ourselves and one another, we have to allow the grief to be felt. We cannot heal it by avoiding it or denying it. We know this from the perspective of psychology. But that doesn’t make it any easier to take when we are in it up to our necks.
There are some cultures, however, that are better at living in the pain than others. Early Israel was one such culture. The people who wrote the scriptures and, later on, those who chose the books that would be part of our cannon recognized our profound need to feel the pain that life gives us, to experience our losses and to express them. Job is an entire book in the Bible, and with 42 chapters, it is one of the longest Biblical books at that. The book of Job is about being in the pain. The book is a description of Job’s experience of hurt and despair and his feeling that God had abandoned and forsaken him.
As Henry Nouwen continued in Out of Solitude, “… are we ready to really experience our powerlessness in the face of death and say, ‘I do not understand. I do not know what to do, but I am here with you.’ Are we willing to not run away from the pain, to not get busy when there is nothing to do and instead stand rather in the face of death together with those who grieve?” ... “When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.  The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.”
There is more good news in the face of grief. As hard as it is, there are gifts in grief. Some of those gifts of grief include a larger vision of the world, a deeper understanding of what is possible and what new futures we can envision to replace the images of the ones we used to have. Through grief we become more integrated, more whole in our experiences and our memories, making sense of the past and building tools of fortitude and understanding for facing future loss. Through grief we become more empathetic and have a deeper vision for the compassion Jesus calls us to have for one another. Through grief we learn our own resilience, our own strength, and learn about internal gifts and external supports that we never would have known we had. Only through genuine grief can we make room in our psyche’s to move forward into a new tomorrow with new dreams, goals and hopes. Through genuine grief we say goodbye to the past, and we open the door for God to bring about the resurrections that God promises us.
Robert Browning Hamilton wrote:
“I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.”

When we remember grief, when we experience grief and when we read scriptures like today’s passage from Job and even more, Psalm 22, we are also called to remember that these words of pain, and of suffering are quoted from Jesus on the cross. Psalm 22 like Job ends with a recognition of God’s greatness, God’s comfort and God’s love. But it does not start there. Some commentators who talk about Jesus quoting Psalm 22 on the cross are so uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus saying that God forsook him that they, too, discount Jesus’ pain and say that Jesus was just beginning a psalm that everyone knew ended with a declaration of God’s love and presence. But Jesus wasn’t quoting the end of the psalm. He was quoting the beginning. He was in the pain. He felt abandoned by God. He felt the despair that all of us have felt at one time or another. He felt it all. And that is the best of the good news for today. That is the good news that we find in the Hebrew’s passage as well when we are told that Jesus is not without empathy, that he has felt all that we have felt and experienced all that we have experienced. Our feelings of despair, of loss, of anger are not blasphemy. They are not un-holy. They are mirrored and reflected in scripture itself. Jesus, himself, felt all that we feel. And therefore, as today’s passage in Hebrews tells us, he is not unsympathetic with our weaknesses and our pain.  Jesus felt our pain and he expressed that pain. His expression likewise gives us permission to speak of it as well. God can handle it, and God gives us the words to do it if we are uncomfortable using our own words. We can read Job, we can pray the psalms, knowing that God has heard them before, and that Jesus felt they were worthy enough to be expressed that he himself said them too. We therefore have been given the gift of being able to speak our feelings to God. Knowing this can also give us the courage to stand with one another in each other’s pain, too. 
Just as we strive to be the friends to one another who care, not by our sayings that try to avoid or ignore each other’s pain, but by being willing to be with one another, in silence, in love, just to listen, until we can move through and beyond the pain; we are called to give ourselves the same grace of experiencing the grief. Jesus knows our deepest pain - we see him on the cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” And while we can stand in the sure knowledge that the other side of the pain is the resurrection, we have to truly experience the death first before we can get there. Holding hands with one another and with our God, we can get through this, and anything, together.  Amen.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Lessons, lessons and more lessons

      I woke up angry this morning. That doesn't usually happen. Usually I wake up appreciative of the morning quiet, the morning dark, the time when I can lay in bed and think, or pray, or meditate for a few minutes before starting the day.  But this morning I woke up angry.
      Yes, there is a reason.  I post a lot of stuff on Facebook about the constant challenges we face, and we were given more yesterday.  I paid someone to put in new linoleum in our fixer-upper kitchen.  This was supposed to be a one day job, but the man didn't finish.  That's fine.  However, after he'd left and I walked into the kitchen, I saw that there were two dents/rips in the middle of the new linoleum. I paid through the nose to have this professional install a new, beautiful, clean kitchen floor, and it is wrecked before he is even finished with it.  I know how these things go...I will whine and complain, but be told that because I didn't notice it while he was still standing there, that there is "no proof" that he did this, and that "too bad for you - it is what it is."  I know this is how it will go because this is how it has been going for us with every stumbling block we have faced throughout the move.
    One example: the movers (Stephen's, in case you want to know who NOT to use) lost several expensive items in the move: my daughter's bed, my son's camping tent, an expensive large set of pruning sheers, the legs to a table that had been made especially for me, our hand truck/moving dolly, our wagon, a broom and upright dustpan, etc. None were small.  None (except the broom and dustpan) were cheap. And when we wrote to the company and said these were missing, we were told "Too bad for you.  You didn't notice they were missing as they unloaded the items.  You didn't notice they were missing while the moving guys were still standing in front of the truck, so you are out of luck." Really? Because I just didn't have everything that was in our house so thoroughly memorized that I would notice at the moment that three men and several helpers were moving stuff that these particular things weren't among them.
     Another example - I have had a hard time enrolling the kids for school out here, especially my daughter who is now enrolled in an online program. It has been a challenge for a variety of reasons, but they are now enrolled and attending schools here. Part of getting them enrolled involved UNenrolling them from their schools in Ohio and requesting official transcripts to be sent to their new schools, etc. I did all of that, however, and thought we were good to go until yesterday I received in the mail an official letter saying that I was about to be arrested for not making my kids attend school in Ohio.  Apparently my kids are "truant" because they are living and attending schools in CA and not in Ohio any longer.
     So, as I said, I woke up angry.  And then I opened my computer and I saw that my good friend, Sarah, had posted this on Facebook, "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression." And I stopped.  The reality is that the stupid stuff I seem to deal with every day is just that - stupid stuff.  I am not in a war torn country. I am not fleeing for my life because of oppression or threats or violence.  I am not a refugee somewhere without work or food or a place to live. While the linoleum guy may not listen to me because I'm female (an experience I've had with other house workers and especially with car repair people), I know I still have the unfair privilege that comes with being born white. I have enough to eat. I have a lot of "stuff", most of which is a "want" and very little of which is an absolute necessity.  I have a lovely house to live in, even if it does need work. I am surrounded by family and friends and a wonderful church community who is helping me fix up the house, and care for the kids, and transition to this place.  I have work that I enjoy (and that is not something to take for granted, or something everyone has by any means).  I have three lovely, healthy children.  My parents, aunts, uncles, sister - all my family except grandparents are still living. I am incredibly lucky.  I won't say I'm "blessed" because I think God loves all of us and blesses all of us in different ways. I have to acknowledge that much of what I have is "privilege".  I was privileged to be born to a middle class family.  I was privileged to be raised in a way that valued education.  I was privileged to be born white. I am privileged to have good health in my family and in my own being. I was privileged to have my schooling paid for and to be able to worship how I want and to be able to speak out in this format about anything. And while I strive to be aware of all that I have to be grateful for, sometimes I forget that it is a privilege to have all that I have.  It is not a right. And while I will stand up for myself about the linoleum, if I am not successful, I will need to still be grateful that I have it at all. "Equality feels like oppression." Well, if I am honest, there is no equality.  I am far more privileged than most of the world. Than MOST of the world. It isn't even equality when I have to deal with this stupid stuff.  It's just little daily challenges. I am still incredibly privileged. What do I honestly have to be angry about?

    There are days when I wonder why so many challenges come my way.  I wonder why we had to go through hard stuff in Ohio and then why the move had to be so very hard.  I wonder why, daily, I have these lessons in patience, forgiveness, compassion, and presence. There are times when I would prefer to simply have a nice easy year, or month, or week, or even just a nice easy day or two.  But that isn't what I have been given in this life. Instead of ease, I've been blessed with lessons.  Instead of travel and wealth and luxury, I've been blessed with opportunities to learn. I've been given lessons that call me each and every day to be grateful, lessons that call me to breathe through those hard moments and to stay present in the now, to keep my eyes open for the good, lessons in being quiet and creating peace within so I can help spread it without, lessons in being patient and in waiting each day to see the gifts that will come, lessons in learning to trust and learning to forgive, lessons in letting go of anger and of the past and sometimes, of people I've loved.  Every day there are lessons. and for today, the biggest of those is to accept and be grateful that those lessons are the blessings I've been given.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"Getting" What We've Done or Lessons from Jane Austen Part I

My favorite book and movie of all time is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  It is a good soothing movie for me, a break from the realities of the real world, and funny to boot.  So after a really long, full week, if I really need a break from everything, the A&E 5 hour version of Pride and Prejudice gets put into the DVD player for an afternoon of pure laziness and recuperation. A wonderful way to relax. Still, there is one part of it that always irritates me.  Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 when puritan values still presided. Lydia, the youngest of the Bennett sisters in the story, ran off with the horrible, though handsome and charming Mr. Wickam.  She believed he wanted to marry her, which he didn't.  And so, in order to avoid throwing her entire family into disgrace (which is why giving you the period of time in which this was written is important), this horrible man with whom she had been living is "bought". In other words, he was paid substantial money to marry her because what she had done, living with a man to whom she is not married, would have left her a disgraced woman, banished from all good society as well as casting disrepute on her entire family, making marriage for her sisters all but impossible, leaving the entire family in a state of ridicule and shame. I'm not interested in arguing the various pros and cons of the morals of that time; in the story world, this makes sense for the time in which it was written.

But what drives me crazy is that Lydia NEVER GETS IT.  She has no comprehension for the scandal she put her family through.  She comes home married to this terrible man, and rather than expressing gratitude, apology or humility in the face of her actions, she is simply proud, boastful and even self-righteously snobby towards her now "lesser" unmarried sisters. She has no idea, none at all, of the stress and humiliation, of the shame and fear which she put her family through. She does not know how close she came to ending up a street woman, with no husband, ever, for the rest of her life (and again, in those days, that would have been doom for her).  She can't comprehend how close she came to ruining the dreams and hopes of all her family. She is not grateful for their sacrifices and has no comprehension of what they are. It bugs me no end that she does not begin to understand how she has hurt others, that she never apologizes because she has no sense of what she has done, that instead of a healthy dose of self-reflection and humility, she is proud and feels superior to her sisters. They allow her this ridiculous attitude, never bothering to point out to her her faults, never challenging the horrible behavior because they know she would never get it anyway.  There are never any consequence for the damage she did. And I have to admit, for all my talk about forgiveness, letting go, not needing revenge or seeking vengeance, this bothers me.   Her story book sisters forgive her, but I struggle to do the same.  Everyone goes on to live wonderful happy lives, but I remain irritated that she never gets it. I want justice, in the sense that I at least want her to feel some remorse, some humility around what she has done. And the fact that she is incapable of those feelings threatens my sense of what is just.

One of the gifts of Jane Austen is that she captures human behaviors, attitudes, and feelings well. There are people just like Lydia who never can "get" it.  I don't ever want to be one of those people, though I'm certain I, too, have blind spots at times. We all do.  It is easier for most of us to recognize those faults in others. I encounter, as we all do, those who tend to be the most privileged folk, those whose lives are comfortable and who cannot see or appreciate the sacrifices others have made so that they might have the comfortable lives they claim. There appears to be very little justice where they are concerned. They get where they are by stepping on the backs of others without realizing the hurt, harm and damage they cause. They won't, or can't, look at how they've injured others. That's just part of the life we live here. Life isn't fair.

But eventually we have to let go of our need for other people to be brought to justice or we will be consumed by our own anger, frustration, need for vengeance and living in the past. We have to choose instead to strive for peace and good and justice in all we do, this day and every day, regardless of the past. We have to let go of our judgments and condemnations of others, and begin to be more self-reflective on what we have done that we might not want to look at, how we can change so that we hurt others less, and what we can do differently that will make life better for everyone we encounter. And, like Lydia's family, we can keep working towards the highest good for the other, even when they refuse to get it, even when their actions cause us to suffer, even when they are unaware of it. We can choose to act with love, peace and integrity since we are called to do nothing less.  And, as hard as it is, we can strive to leave the justice of it up to God.  After all, as Romans 12:19 says it, "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge."  I don't tend to see or believe that God is wrathful.  Rather, I think God really understands us at our deepest level and has compassion, even for the dumb mistakes we make.  But at the point where the injustices of life simply feel too much, perhaps we can let go of them for a time, remembering it isn't ours to "fix" anyway.  Not easy.  But necessary for our own peace of mind, for our own growth.  When we are focused on others, there is no room to look at ourselves.  The opposite is also true.  When we focus on growing ourselves, we usually have a whole lot less time or space inside to judge others.  We are called through our faith, not to judge or try to "fix" others while helping ourselves, but instead to work to fix ourselves while helping others. It's a whole lot harder.  But it will also lead us more fully into wholeness, a wholeness that I believe to be contagious for those with open hearts and open eyes.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - World Communion

World Communion and Peacemaking
2 Tim. 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

            Today is world communion Sunday and peacemaking Sunday.  It is a day in which we focus on the part of our call that is feeding each other, feeding the needy, feeding the world.  It is a day that we celebrate that God is with us when we eat together and feed one another, because it is God who is actually doing the feeding.  Sarah Miles, in her book Take this Bread, put it this way, “it’s the really hungry who can smell fresh bread a mile away.  For those who know their need, God is immediate – not an idea, not a theory, but life, food, air for the stifled spirit and the beaten, despised, exploited body.”  That is what is offered in communion, in this last supper, in the sacrament of this meal.  We are offered food, yes, but more we are offered life, we are offered God God-self – God’s presence and care here in this meal.  Sarah Miles continued, “What Jesus offered was a radical…love that accompanied people in the most ordinary actions – eating, drinking, walking, and stayed with them, through fear, even past death.”  She connects all of this with Jesus’ call and command to Peter…She said, “I couldn’t stop thinking about another (Biblical) story: Jesus instructing his beloved, fallible disciple Peter exactly how to love him:  ‘Feed my sheep.’  Jesus asked, “Do you love me?”  Peter fussed, “Of course I love you.’  “Feed my sheep.”  Peter fussed some more.  “Do you love me?” asked Jesus again.  “Then feed my sheep.”  It seemed pretty clear.  If I wanted to see God, I could feed people.”
            Sara Miles was actually converted to faith – she came to know the living Christ through the experience to taking communion.  When we read about Jesus feeding the 5000, my guess is that this was the conversion moment for many of them as well.  In the taking of food that God has given us, the food of Christ, the body of the Word, we experience God.  We are converted and reconverted to God.  When we feed others, when we offer them the bread of life, literally, we invite them to experience God as well.  Sara walked into a church one day an atheist on an anthropological mission to understand what people saw and experienced in church.  But she was invited to take communion that day.  She described her experience this way.  She wrote, “And then we gathered around that table.  And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of the fresh crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened.  Jesus happened to me.  I still can’t explain my first communion.  I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.... that impossible word, "Jesus," lodged in me like a crumb. I said it over and over to myself, as if repetition would help me understand. I had no idea what it meant, I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion: it was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I'd swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh." …(quote from book p.58 of Take this Bread).
Sara’s belief in the meal, the feast of communion as an honest to goodness feeding of people led Sara Miles to begin a soup kitchen in San Francisco that now feeds thousands of people every week.  Her soup kitchen is based on her understanding of communion…volunteers and guests eat together, commune together, with prayer, in a sacred space – in their sanctuary because it is for her where communion should take place.   It is a feast – and it is a feeding of the thousands again and again.  As such, it has also become a place of conversion for many – a place of deep renewal and recognition of Christ, of Jesus among them in the meal.
     David Bailey wrote a wonderful piece of music that echoes this understanding of communion.  I’m going to read the words to you and invite you to close your eyes and listen:
It was just another Sunday at the big church down on main. He was just another homeless man, Big Joe was his name. She was just a kitchen helper, Miss Betty mild and meek, who prepared the sacred elements, every single week.  Well the prayers had all been said, the hymns had all been sung.  The pastor set the table, invited everyone. Big Joe heard the music, he took a step inside.  He saw a bunch of well dressed folks who looked like they were trying to hide.  He saw a man in fancy robes hold up a loaf of bread, tear it into pieces.  And Big Joe thought he said, “All ye who are hungry…”  Joe thought, “That’s me!”  So he walked on down the aisle, hoping it was free. Well the pastor looked uneasy, not sure what to do. But the usher held the plate out and said “broken just for you.” Big Joe felt pretty lucky, then they handed him some wine. The cups were pretty small but it tasted pretty fine
Then he said to the usher, “That bread was good. Could I have a little more? Do you think I could?”   Now the usher looked uneasy, looked a bit confused.  Then he said “I'm sorry sir.  That's not how this bread is used.” Joe said “I'd like to talk to the master of this meal.  I'd really like to know just exactly how he feels. 'Cause up there on the table I can see it plain as day: You got a half a loaf left over  - you’re gonna throw that away.  Cause I got a bunch of friends – they’re sleeping in the street - right outside your door and they could use a bite to eat.”  Well the ushers got to talking, then began to shout. Then before you know it, a fight had broken out.  Meanwhile miss Betty slipped away, to the kitchen she did go, filled a basket up with bread.  She brought it back to Joe.   She said “Take this to your friends and you come on back next week”.  Joe said “As you've done to them - you've done to me!” That's how it all got started at the big church down on Main, where people come from miles away to break bread in His name! Hallelujah!

When Jesus began the last supper, he said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”  He ate a real meal with his disciples.  Yes, it was a ritual, it was Passover, but it was a ritual meal – one where there was talking, laughter, sharing…not the serious contemplative quiet taking of a tiny bite followed by an equally tiny sip, but real and genuine fellowship and communion.  He was eager to share in this meal with his disciples, not only because he recognized that it would be his last Passover meal in this realm with them, but also because of all that it meant to him to eat with his disciples.  It was fellowship.  It was food.  It was community and deep communion.  It was a teaching time in which he shared with them that he would remain with them in this meal even beyond his death.  It was an invitation to be in communion with God.  It was prayer.  It was being together with Christ at every level.  We are called to do the same.  For me, coffee hour and the meals we share – these are communion for us as the body of Christ.  The times when we’ve eaten with homeless families who are being served a meal, or when we’ve given lunches to kids or provided food bags for those who need it – when we share food with those who need it – this is the communion of Jesus feeding the 5000.  And today we share in the meal with people all over the world, celebrating Christ with one another, inviting the Word into our bodies in a concrete, tangible, and real way, inviting a deeper relationship with Christ and with one another.
Through our need for food we are united.  Through our serving and eating with one another, we are united.  Through our faith, we are united, but even more than that, through our humanity we are one.  Mitch Albom put it this way, (HALF 259)  “God sings, we hum along, and there are many melodies, but it’s all one song – one same, wonderful, human song.”
Albom said in “The Five People you Meet in Heaven”,  “Strangers,….are just family you have yet to come to know.”
            Strangers are just family we have yet to come to know.  And because of that, strangers should be treated as family, too.  I think about what has happened this week, again, in Oregon.  I think about the deaths and the tragedy.  We are all part of that tragedy.  While it is probable that none of us was directly impacted by this shooting, we are all one.  And because of that, the loss of those young people is our loss as well.  We must stand with them.  And we must try to change things for ALL of us.

Standing with one another around the world – standing by one another around the world …that is another way to celebrate world communion Sunday.  To be in fellowship together…to work together to build something international – namely the body of Christ…to eat together.  That is world communion Sunday.  Standing up against injustice, and standing with people in their pain, THAT is communion.  That is what we do this day.  As we prepare to take communion, I invite you to remember our unity, to remember that Jesus fed anyone who came and invited everyone to the table, to remember that we are Christ’s body – not just the body of our respective churches – but the body of Christ: united in our love for him and for God, united by this meal, united in our call to love all people and to work for their healing and justice – this is communion.  Amen.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Raising kids....alone

       There was an article posted on Facebook recently that was the musings of a divorced mom sharing her struggles and angst with the role.  She was sharing how it is hard to have the kids all by herself at times, and then just as hard to have to share them with someone who removes them from the home for a few days at a time.  She valued the kids having time with their father, but missed them when they were gone.  Still, when they returned to her and she had them all on her own, she found her energy was short and she often wished for help.  And I found myself just thinking how different it was to be not only a single mom but also a SOLO mom - a parent who has full custody, full responsibility, full time being a single parent with my children.
     My experience is not unique.  Parents whose co-parent is deployed oversees, or whose spouse has died or is incarcerated, or single people who adopt all share this experience.  Sometimes they have one child, sometimes more than one.  Sometimes they have all straight A stellar kids, sometimes they have a special needs or especially challenging child like I do. Whatever our circumstances there are many of us.  And yet, one of the factors that I think most of us share in common is the overwhelming SENSE of being alone - of trying to do it all ourselves when we simply don't have the time, energy or resources to be able to do that.
     It takes a village to raise a child.  Yes, it absolutely does.  And yet, we live in a culture that emphasizes independence, that separates people into their houses and boxes and buildings.  We live in a place where asking for help is often taken as a sign of weakness, and where it is not really tolerated on a long term basis.  I have asked for help with the children in the past, from people who have offered help, and yet have been greeted with "I don't want you to become dependent so the answer is no".  The whole idea of being "dependent" is incredibly feared, stigmatized and seen as one of the ultimate "bads" of our society.  It is a little more acceptable to ask family to help, rely on relatives, especially when it comes to the raising of kids, but even then, I've overheard countless conversations with older people that basically come back to, "You shouldn't have to be helping your children raise their kids.  You raised your own already. You are done with that." And, truthfully, it is not just those helping who resist the "village" idea.  We live in a place where advice given on child rearing is often resented.  We don't know everything, and yet we are supposed to, and somehow when we are given advice we take it as a personal insult to our lack of innate knowledge about the best ways to rear children.  I've also heard of numerous situations in which kids become attached to the "help", and then the parents replace the helper because the parents become envious of those deep connections to their kids.  How does all of this work with the true wisdom that it does indeed take a village to raise a child?
       As a solo parent, I make all of the decisions for my kids on my own: where they go to school, what they eat, what clothes we buy, who watches them when I work, what they can watch on TV, how much media time they are allowed, what activities I will enroll them in, where we go for vacation, whether or not we pray at dinner and at bedtime, who we will spend our free time with, what influences they will be exposed to, where they will live and play and study and work.  I do it all on my own.  I can consult with others, but the ultimate decisions are mine.  I am aware that I often get it wrong.  I don't pay them enough attention because I work too much.  And when I do have time and attention to give them, I am not always in the best spirits or give them the kind of attention they really need and deserve because I'm worn out.  I probably let them see way too much of my own moods, frustrations and fears because there just isn't another adult in my home with whom to share those things.  I do an adequate job, but not a great job.  They aren't abused.  They are fed and housed. They are loved, and they know it.  
       But I know it isn't enough.  And there are moments at which I am all too aware that I am just simply not enough.  There are moments in which I make a decision and worry that it isn't right.  But more, I'm aware that the limited resources I can give them, regardless of the decisions I make, aren't enough.  It takes a village to raise a child.  Where is this village that we talk about?  Where are the villagers who can be called on to help raise each child?
       In the Presbyterian church, we baptize people of all ages, and that includes infants.  We do this because for us it is a sign that God chooses us even before we are old enough to understand it.  We also have rules around that.  A person cannot have their child baptized in a Presbyterian church if the parents are not members of the church.  The reason for this is that a big part of our understanding of baptism is that it is a commitment from the faith body to be the "village" that raises the child.  A big part of the ritual is a promise from the congregation to raise the child as a child of God.  The congregation promises to support, love, nurture and raise each baby that is baptized in its midst. Sometimes people move, but the promise is made on behalf of all congregations to which that child might belong.  Sometimes people come in to my office whom I have never met and who have no intention of attending church and ask me to baptize their baby.  I understand that.  It usually means something very different to those individuals - they are worried about the baby's salvation or afterlife, usually.  That isn't what it means for Presbyterians, so in those cases, I usually encourage the person to find a different denomination to baptize their child who might have that other understanding.  But I digress.
        The point is that in our churches we make promises to each child baptized in our midst that we will help raise them.  How seriously do we take those promises?  How deeply do the parents whose children are baptized in the church take in that promise of help and care and nurture for their kids?
        My sense is that it is not taken with the seriousness with which it was intended.  I say again, with absolute conviction, it takes a village to raise a child.  The "myth" that we should be independent is simply that, a myth. All of us are interdependent. We are all connected and to believe that you are independent or even SHOULD be independent is to believe a lie.  But it extends even beyond our daily reliance on other people into the bigger picture that our connections go deeper than we know. When you are hurting, I am hurting.  When your kids don't have enough attention, my community and my world is lessened.  And when we offer care and love and support to one another, all of us are enriched.  I have more energy and love to give when my kids are loved and cared for.  And you are more able to care for others when I have the energy to care for you. When I have enough, all of my interactions with others are more positive, and that extends outwards. It is circular. and it deepens.  I'm reminded of a song I learned at church when I was little, "Love is like a magic penny.  Hold it tight and you won't have any.  Lend it, spend it and you'll have so many, they'll roll all over the floor!  Love is something: if you give it away, you end up having more!"
        I am deeply grateful to those who have chosen to be part of the village raising my children.  I am grateful every day for those who offer help and who take an active interest in my kids' lives.  I hope that you are enriched by it as well.  But for me, it is absolutely essential for all of us.  It takes a village to raise a child.  And as we build that village for our children, we are blessed to find ourselves part of a community that nurtures and feeds and "grows" us as well.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Life as a part of a bigger journey.

      When I can step back and really see this life as a trip, as a small step in a larger path, when I can see each mistake as a lesson rather than something that has “changed my life irreparably”, and each moment as an experience rather than a decision that determines the course of my existence irreversibly; then I can relax more about the past, I am more accepting of the present, and I am less anxious about the future.  I can be philosophical about life.  When life is something to be experienced, rather than something to "get right", when I can take this moment and all moments without the seriousness of feeling each thing I do will be somehow unalterable, I can be more comfortable with making “errors”.  I can also be easier on my kids, because I can see their "errors" too as just experiences, opportunities to learn and grow on a path that is slightly different from what it might have been had they chosen differently, but still a worth while path (perhaps even more so), full of it's own adventures, challenges and discoveries.  It is their own journey to make, whatever that may look like, rather than a contest or a struggle against the forces of life with some who win and some who lose and a lot of people who get lost in the middle.  
       Paramahansa Yogandanda said, "Do not take life's experiences too seriously.  Above all, do not let them hurt you for in reality they are nothing but dream experiences.  If circumstances are bad and you have to bear them, do not make them a part of yourself.  Play your part in life but never forget that it is only a role."
       This is really hard to do.  It is really hard to not take life seriously in every moment.  But the result of taking life so seriously is regrets and anxiety and this constant feeling that we are somehow on the wrong path, we have made choices that have put us on the wrong road, we've taken turns and made mistakes that can't be undone.  Again, the other choice is to see it all as experiences.  In that case every mistake really is just a lesson to be learned; a sea of pebbles each to be picked and held for a time rather than a series of roads, only one of which is right and only one of which will lead each of us to "win" this game called life. 
       I think there are a lot of reasons why we get stuck in the "too serious" win/lose game mentality of life.  For one thing, those on the top would promote that vision, with them as the "winners" and the rest of us as losers.  It benefits them to see everything they have done (or that has been done for them) as worth the win that they claim to have done better than others. It helps them feel superior and on top at some level, and that's a nice feeling to have.
       But this other vision of life, as one of experiences and lessons and a sea of pebbles rather than a series of one-way roads allows us to see that every life is valuable, every life is a "win" of experiences, though some may be more joyful experiences and others may be hard.  It also allows for the option of picking a new pebble each day, and of not being "stuck" on the path one has chosen intentionally or through "mistakes".  I think it opens up the possibility of a life creatively lived, as we see more than just the options of staying on the path we are currently on, but instead see options for walking a different way, a unique way, one that leads to pebbles far on the other shore from the experiences we have come to know.
       I saw this posted as I was writing this essay:

       When we are able to see life as a series of experiences and lessons, we are more able to take risks.  For some those risks might include choosing a different career path, going back to school, moving across the country, getting to know someone different, forming new connections.  For me, they also include risking caring "too much", being too kind, offering compassion more often.  I can risk being hurt by others because that, too, is just another experience.  I can risk offering care and resources to others because that, too, is just another experience.  It is a chance to interact with others who have picked up different pebbles and to see what their experiences have been, what the pebbles they have chosen have given them, what a different journey might look like. 
      My goal for today is to breath into each moment as its own, to choose each moment for the experience it has to share, and to live each moment without regret or anxiety about the next.  My hope is that you, too, can find peace in each moment for its own sake.