Sunday, November 30, 2008

New doubtfulness


Frida Kahlo, Tree of Hope, Keep Firm (1946)

"He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all."
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, Moral and Religious Aphorisms, XXIV.

By way of Jan over at Yearning for God, I've started reading Harold Loukes' The Quaker Contribution (see quote by Loukes on Jan's sidebar). The Quaker way fascinates me. I've been to one meeting with a former spiritual director who was a Quaker. The silence, the stillness, the absolute assurance of the presence of the Spirit within each worshipper was profound. After the service I confided to my friend that I thought of a particular hymn during the service and played it in my head as we sat in the meetinghouse. She cried with delight, "You could have stood and sung the hymn if you wished!" The outright joy and respect for each individual experience of God was palpable.

In his book Loukes quotes Robert Barclay's Apology for the true Christian Divinity (1676), then offers this reflection (the quotes are from Barclay):


"The significant phrase here is 'unwillingness to enter again into new doubtfulness': the reluctance to start again, experimentally, without certainties or comfort from the tradition.

"The Quaker theme is this extreme statement of the Reformation: that true religion consists not in certainty but in search, not old conviction but 'new doubtfulness'. In
the end there was a 'new certainty' to be discovered, but it was a certainty of a different kind from the old: no longer fixed and hardened into institutions and creeds, but infinitely more powerful because it reached the centre of human being.

"The Quaker story is thus the story of a group of people who trusted to the inward and rejected the outward."


It seems if we are to be honest about faith, we must keep a healthy balance of this 'new doubtfulness'. Faith is about "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen". Our experience of faith cannot be proven to another; the assurance, the conviction is ours alone. To keep our faith pliable and strong, it cannot be a fixed point. Nothing remains the same. We may long for the past but change keeps us moving toward a new day. In fact, change is the one constant (Octavia Butler in her book of fiction The Parable of the Sower created a whole philosophy based on God as Change). Behold, God is doing a new thing; do we perceive it?

On this first Sunday in Advent, we celebrate hope, which is to me is a mixture of faith and doubt. We see this especially in the reading from Isaiah 64, the longing for a God who appears to be absent, yet nonetheless the prophet cries out to this God. The tradition tells us that this longing was fulfilled not in the expectation of a divine rescue but in Jesus, born in poverty, by way of divine intervention in the creation of a human being. But what does our experience tell us now? What is our experience of Jesus? Of divine action in the human story? These questions beg of us a decrease of the ego and the mind, an increase in the imagination, in the capacity for mystery and for joy. The 'new doubtfulness' is meant to lead us to an authentic faith, not a pessimistic, jaundiced view of religious institutions.

In our longing for wholeness, in our search for the holy, in our 'new doubtfulness', may mercy and peace be our companions and may we know the almighty love with which we are already surrounded.

P.S. A link to an editorial by Leonard Pitts in the Miami Herald, posted on the blog The Quaker Agitator, that relates to this reflection. Thanks, Jan.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thoughts for Thanksgiving



To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.
--Johannes A. Gaertner


As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.
--John F. Kennedy


If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice.
--Meister Eckhart

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pedal power

from WNDU.com

Ft. Wayne, IN: The Embassy Festival of Trees offers a unique way to brighten up its newest attraction.

Visitors to the festival starting Wednesday evening will be able to create power for the lights on a Christmas tree by pedaling on a bike connected to a generator. The generator creates energy that goes into a power pack and lights the tree.

The power pack stores energy, but when it runs low, an alarm sounds indicating that more pedaling is needed.

Embassy Marketing Director Dana Poffenberger came up with the idea of installing an interactive alternative-energy tree. Its ornaments all are made from recycled or natural products.

--Maybe next year they could install one at Rockefeller Square. Gives a whole different twist to a bicycle for Christmas.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Stranger Stewardship



Matthew 25: 31-46
***** ******** Congregational Church
November 23, 2008


Today is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday, the culmination of one year in the church and the close of one cycle of lectionary readings from the Bible. It is the last Sunday in the Christian year before the new year begins next Sunday on the first Sunday of Advent.

The gospel lesson for today, from Matthew, comes right at the end of Jesus’ ministry. He is in Jerusalem for the last time; soon he will gather with his disciples for a final Passover Seder. This is quite a juxtaposition: Jesus is near the end of his days this Sunday, speaking of when he will come in glory; next Sunday we will begin the wait for his birth in a lowly, ordinary place. Yet today we celebrate Christ as ruler of God’s kingdom.

But if Christ is king, where is his kingdom? If Christ is Lord, where is Christ being followed in ways that are saving the planet and its peoples? (1) In this morning’s gospel lesson we read that those who minister to ‘the least of these’, those who welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned, who feed the hungry and give the thirsty water to drink, those who give as Jesus would give are the inhabitants of God’s kingdom, no matter what nation they come from. These are the ones who are following Jesus in ways that will save the planet and its peoples.

I’d like to tell you a story about where Christ is being followed in such a way. The story takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico; certainly a lowly, ordinary place if ever there was one. It begins in the summer of 2003 when Bryan Nurnberger, a young school teacher from Naugatuck, CT and a member of the Naugatuck Congregational Church, was rock-climbing his way around the mountains of central Mexico. After about a month of vacation, in his endlessly energetic way, he grew tired of what he was doing, needing a fresh challenge. A friend and fellow teacher told him about a woman who ran an orphanage outside of Oaxaca City in southern Mexico, called Casa Hogar. Bryan took a bus there, called the number he was given, and a pickup truck came to get him. It was late at night when he arrived and all the children were asleep. The next morning Bryan woke up and he was surrounded—by 80+ children.

These children were living in deplorable conditions. Many of them had special needs, most of them were malnourished; none of them had ever used a toothbrush. The majority of them were economic orphans whose family, single parent or grandparent could no longer afford to care for them. Some children had a parent who was incarcerated. Others suffered abuse from their families.

One such child was Ricardo, a 15-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. He would wear not only the same clothes for three days but also the same diaper. He and Bryan became friends, forming a connection that would change both their lives.

Once Bryan met these children, shared their lives, and got to know Carol and her husband Francisco who took care of children no one else would, he knew he had to do something to help. Upon returning to Connecticut, Bryan founded Simply Smiles, an organization dedicated to providing for the needs of impoverished people. He thought he could provide some food and necessities for the kids, maybe some support and awareness to put a band-aid on the problem. He didn’t intend that it would become his life’s work.

Now five years later, Ricardo has a new wheelchair. He eats three solid meals a day. He goes to a special needs private school. He had an operation so he could move his legs and his upper body more easily. All of the children of Casa Hogar go to school; all are well-nourished and much loved. There is also a second orphanage in the northern region of Oaxaca in Cuicatlan. Bryan and now a staff of co-workers and a board of directors for Simply Smiles organize church mission trips to Casa Hogar and raise funds and awareness. I, along with other adults and college students from Monroe Congregational Church went on our third mission trip to Casa Hogar this past summer. There is even a Silver Lake youth mission trip to Casa Hogar, now in its second year.

But what is truly remarkable is that the orphanage has its own mission: helping the resident worker families of the Oaxaca city dump. They are a close-knit community of 120 men, women, and children: families who live and work there, culling recyclable plastic bottles, tin cans, and cardboard from the mountains of garbage. They bundle up the collected materials, load it on trucks, and it is then sold to a Mexican mafia who pays them about 400 pesos (40 dollars) for the week's work: 10 pesos (1 dollar) per family. Some of their food they scavenge from their findings. They work from sunrise to sunset, in 80 degree heat, surrounded and permeated by the stench of rotting garbage. Imagine some of the worst stuff they could find, and they have found it and probably worse: medical waste, including syringes, dead animals, smells so bad they can be seen escaping from the just-ripped plastic bags.


Mitzi Garcia, whose family now has a new house.

It began by the children of Casa Hogar delivering lunches twice a week. Now that a trusting relationship has been built by Bryan, the children, and Simply Smiles, homes of dignity and comfort are being built for these families by church volunteers. And now that Casa Hogar is running so well, having its needs well-provided for, Bryan is searching for another orphanage that needs help.

Clearly, in the context of the gospel lesson, Bryan is a sheep: without thought to himself, he is one who has ministered to the least of these, members of Christ’s family. Usually when we read this story we wonder to ourselves: am I a sheep or a goat? But as is typical with the gospel, the lesson is not about us; it is about who we are in relationship to the gospel, the good news of the presence of Christ. The question before us is: Who are we in relationship to the Christ? Who are we in relationship to the stranger? Who is this church in relationship to the kingdom?

If the members of Christ’s family are the stranger, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, then the Reign of Christ is also the Reign of the Stranger. If Christ is Lord, then so too are the needs of the least of these. If we say that Christ has a claim upon our lives, then indeed we are declaring that the stranger has a claim upon our lives.

The timing of this reading from Matthew truly is remarkable. We are approaching Advent and Christmas, coming near to an obscure manger and a tiny baby. This baby reminds us that we were all babies once, every stranger we meet, every prisoner, every hungry, thirsty, needy person. Seeing the Christ in others requires a hefty exercise of our imaginations and our hearts. Like any parent who can still see the infant in their children’s eyes, no matter how much they change, Jesus compels us to know him so well, to love him so much, that we will know him in the breaking of bread with the hungry; in the pouring out of ourselves with those who thirst; in covering another’s shame with the dignity of authentic friendship; in the sacrifice of ease and time to visit with someone else’s child in prison; in welcoming the stranger not only with a handshake but with a willingness to be transformed.

The glorious throne of judgment and its attendant angels do not reside on high but are embedded in mean and humble places. This Christ who is Lord and King is an unprivileged servant-shepherd. When we look at our resources, where our money and our time goes, where they are spent and to whom they are given, do we see the Christ reflected there or do we see ourselves, our wants and desires?

In order that Christ be made visible in this world, we must become invisible. While the world beckons that we make a name for ourselves, Christ calls us to make known the needs of the stranger amongst us.

Nations, corporations, and those in power will be and are being judged for how resources are used: for the benefit of some or for the benefit of all, especially for the least of those among us? The changes that are being called for seem harder for some because for many years we have not been called upon to sacrifice our ease and prosperity for the sake of others.

This is where it begins, in communities of faith, where we can begin to make changes that can make a difference in the lives of others, by organizing our life together around the needs of the stranger, the outcast, the most needful.

I strongly recommend you, ***** ******** Congregational Church, to find a mission about which you can feel passionate, that captures your collective imagination. Form a connection and be willing to be transformed. Have carry-in dinners about the mission. Try to be hands-on with mission trips, if you can. Raise awareness and funds for the mission, endeavoring to include neighboring churches and community groups. Invite your Sunday School students to support a child of that mission and to learn of that child’s circumstances, exchanging news with one another. Include the mission in your prayers each week and in your own daily prayers.

We make a commitment of our time, our gifts and our money to the church that we might have pastoral staff to teach and to lead us, to challenge and to care for us, to have a church building in which to worship and to meet, and to educate our young people and to be educated Christians ourselves—all so that we can be the Body of Christ and then give it away to a world in need of healing.

The next time you meet, and whenever you meet, to discuss stewardship and your church budget, ask yourselves this question: “When was it that we saw you, Lord?” May your response lead you ever closer to being the Church, ever closer to Christ and his kingdom.


Amen.

_____________________________________________

Notes


Sunday, November 23, 2008

All good

So often I begin the day in a state of neither-here-nor-there, allowing my circumstances, my chores, the unexpected, the plans, the anticipated joys to create my mood, my attitude, the lens through which I will view my life, my little corner of the world.

No wonder I get cranky.

It is better, I think (as if I'm the first person to ever think of this), to take a few moments and actually decide where I am standing. Not to take a side or a position, but to know, to create consciously that lens through which I will see every person, situation, every minute, grand actor in the drama of creation.

And to remind myself throughout the day that earlier I had decided that indeed, it is all good.

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

--Julian of Norwich, c. 1342-1416, English mystic and philosopher

Friday, November 21, 2008

Goating on the herd

...or what I'm doing instead of writing my sermon.

I didn't think this would be quite appropriate to post with my upcoming sermon on Matthew's 'sheep and goats', illustrated below in such a dark, humorous way. Perhaps one of these days I'll learn to write dark, humorous sermons...



When I was in "Godspell", playing one of the goats (shock!), I had a great line that I wish I could use in the sermon: "Aw, Jesus, if we had known it was you, we would have taken you out for a couple of LAMB CHOPS!"

Oh well, back to writing...

Thought for the day

“Everyday courage has few witnesses. But yours is no less noble because no drum beats for you and no crowds shout your name.”
-- Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Subject, predicate...we get it!"

from The Huffington Post:

Obama's Use of Complete Sentences Stirs Controversy
by Andy Borowitz

In the first two weeks since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has broken with a tradition established over the past eight years through his controversial use of complete sentences, political observers say.

Millions of Americans who watched Mr. Obama's appearance on CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday witnessed the president-elect's unorthodox verbal tick, which had Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opened his mouth.

But Mr. Obama's decision to use complete sentences in his public pronouncements carries with it certain risks, since after the last eight years many Americans may find his odd speaking style jarring.

According to presidential historian Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota, some Americans might find it "alienating" to have a president who speaks English as if it were his first language.

"Every time Obama opens his mouth, his subjects and verbs are in agreement," says Mr. Logsdon. "If he keeps it up, he is running the risk of sounding like an elitist."

The historian said that if Mr. Obama insists on using complete sentences in his speeches, the public may find itself saying, "Okay, subject, predicate, subject predicate -- we get it, stop showing off."

The president-elect's stubborn insistence on using complete sentences has already attracted a rebuke from one of his harshest critics, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

"Talking with complete sentences there and also too talking in a way that ordinary Americans like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder can't really do there, I think needing to do that isn't tapping into what Americans are needing also," she said.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Destined for Wholeness



Matthew 25: 14-30
****** Congregational Church
November 16, 2008

There has been much ado made about the recent presidential election and rightly so. The election of an African-American to the highest office in the nation is a turning point in United States history. Children of color will now say with not only hope but also with certitude that they could grow up to be president someday. But it is still one step among thousands in a universal civil rights march toward our country being a whole nation, a whole people; this world a global community.

Thirty years ago this month, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, was assassinated, along with George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco. In the 1970’s many psychiatrists still deemed homosexuality a mental illness. Harvey tried three times to get elected. He received numerous death threats as well as loud cheers of support.

People called Harvey a megalomaniac because he was always seeking attention and publicity. Harvey had a serious motive behind his seemingly self-centered behavior. He knew that to most folks, gays and lesbians were invisible, much like women, blacks, the disabled, those with mental illness, and other minorities were often treated and still are. So Harvey made himself as visible as possible. He wisely surmised that a paralyzing fear was the gay person’s worst enemy. Having an openly gay man elected to political office constituted real hope for those still wounded and in the closet.

Harvey Milk could have led a quiet, private life; there are some who wished he had. He was a native of Long Island, served in the Korean War, and returned to Manhattan to work as a Wall Street investment banker. In the imagery of the parable read for us this morning, he could have taken the riches of who he was and buried himself in a safe existence. Instead he invested himself in organizing minorities to become a majority, working with unions and disconnected ethnic and racial groups. In the few months he served as a city supervisor he helped to pass a city ordinance supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians in San Francisco.

Harvey also knew what he was getting into, that he was risking his life by serving so openly and so passionately in the public sphere. He thought of assassination as something he could not avoid. He even made a recording, a will shortly before his death, including the famous line: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

In this morning’s gospel lesson we meet Jesus at such a point in his own life. He has lived openly and passionately for God’s kingdom, foretelling his death on numerous occasions. He is in Jerusalem for the last time. Soon he will gather with his disciples for a final Passover Seder. If there had been the same kind of publicity and media attention then as there is now, perhaps a reporter would have asked, “Jesus, any last words?” And with that, the reporter might have heard something like this:



“It’s like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.
“After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on, be my partner.’
“The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on, be my partner.’
“The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’
“The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.
“‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.'" (1)

First of all, let us remind ourselves that this story is not only about money. This is a parable, with meanings on many levels. Though the financial tumult of the last few months may tempt us to believe it would be better to bury our money rather than risk it in the stock market, I do not believe this is what this parable is about. Jesus has come to the end of his days; I think he might have something more valuable on his mind than money.

First, though, let us look at what a talent is and how much it is worth. A talent was the equivalent of 15 years wages for a day laborer, a denarius being the daily wage; therefore a talent was worth approximately 5,400 denari. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase likened this to a thousand dollars, but let’s put this into today’s terms. The average low-wage immigrant worker in 2001 earned $14,400 for a year’s work; multiplied by 15 years equals $216,000. For the equivalent of five talents, 75 years of wages, that would be $1,080,000. These servants were being entrusted with an extravagant opportunity, more money than what they would see perhaps in a lifetime.

Having been given stewardship over so much—even the one talent was a great sum—we can understand the reaction of the third servant who buried his master’s wealth in a safe place. And we who follow Jesus can often confuse ourselves with the third servant, assuming that because we see ourselves as having little to give, that we must not have much ability, that we somehow have disappointed God, that God does not trust us.

But these are our self-imposed limitations, both on ourselves and on our view of God. We see ourselves in terms of what we lack, and this is a danger especially to small churches. Even though there is great blessing and generosity in this parable, it is still so easy to focus on only the warning. Even though we worship a God of love, grace, and forgiveness, still we often lead our lives and lead our community of faith in the shadow of a demanding, harsh, and fearsome god, consigning ourselves to a life lived in that same shadow, that utter darkness.

And then there is the long absence, the long time away of the Master. I can imagine that at times it has felt like a long time in this church: a long time of doing the work of ministry, often many tasks done by many of the same individuals: a long time since having an extended relationship with a settled pastor: a long time of having hopes deferred. That can wear on a congregation and on its individual members and leaders.

This is the true oppression under which we human beings can suffer. We allow our circumstances to become much like a closet in which we feel paralyzed, which becomes our greatest enemy. Everything that makes us unique and vibrant and full of life becomes invisible not only to others but also to ourselves.

But this is not our destiny. Like any parent who warns a child of consequences, what the parent truly desires for the child is the best of everything, which is wholeness: wholeness of trust, grace, compassion, purpose. And wholeness is most often found in community. Part of the third servant’s mistake was that he acted alone. The other two servants, in order to double the master’s investment, would have interacted with others in ways that brought risk but also great joy. In community we are called to come out of our closets of fear, and risk being visible by openly and freely sharing the riches God has given us.

What are those riches, those talents? Jesus is speaking here not of income or giftedness but of the gospel, that Good News of God’s radical, amazing, life-transforming love that has been lavished upon each one of us. God is ready to give to us, according to our ability to risk for the kingdom. Do you see yourselves as able or as less than able? Do you desire transformation of this faith community? That means that lives will be transformed as well. Are you ready for not only this church to be transformed but your very lives to be transformed as well? This is what it means to be open to the gospel and to share it freely and visibly with your neighbors.

There is no failure when it comes to sharing the gospel, the love of God. Mother Theresa once said, “The success of love is in the loving—it is not in the result of loving. Of course it is natural in love to want the best for the other person, but whether it turns out that way or not does not determine the value of what we have done.” The success of the gospel is in the living out of the gospel, in the sharing of it. The value of the gospel is determined by how we use it. Do we keep it safe, taking it out only on Sundays and in desperate situations or do we risk daily what it means to be a visible image of God?

Is this scary? You bet it is! To love is risky, to open ourselves and to open the gospel to others, not knowing the outcome or even being guaranteed an outcome, is risky. To have loved and been wounded again and again is difficult to recover from.

There is a powerful saying in Spanish about what to do with the troubles we experience, las cosas de la vida that we live through: Hacer de tripas coraz√≥n. Literally, it means ‘to make a heart of guts’. Feel the fear and do it anyway, which is really a definition of courage. Celebrate the life the gospel gives you and share it with others! Dream often together and dream big! Learn your strength! Eat your self-doubt for breakfast! Remember the power with which God has entrusted you! Bust out of your closet that you may be a visible Christian and a sign of hope for others still in darkness!

What great thing is God calling you toward today? What vision of your congregation’s future is luring your church forward? What limitations do you need to break out of both personally and congregationally in order to become God’s partners in healing the world? (2)

The invitation, the call is given: enter into the joy of the Lord, begin your joyous tasks, from now on be God’s partner. Transformation is upon you. Wholeness awaits you. Those still in darkness are on the lookout. The gospel beckons. God is ready. Are you?

Amen.

______________________________________________


Notes

1. Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), Matthew 25: 13-40.
2. Bruce G. Epperly,
lectionary commentary on Process and Faith website.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Question of the day

How is it that we can put this country further into debt by bailing out Wall Street and Detroit (which has been deemed a sort of sick socialism) but we somehow "can't afford" universal health care?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Yes!!

Seen before but bears repeating:






This one brought tears to my eyes:




Thursday, November 06, 2008

"...one as beautiful as you."

This past weekend my pastor and colleague, Pete Allen, and I led an adult education field trip into New York City to the Museum of Modern Art. One of the special exhibitions we saw was Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night (Click on this link to see a flash of the exhibit and the works mentioned). His famous painting, The Starry Night, used to be my favorite. But while viewing this exhibit I found others. Look at the colors of The Sower, the green of the sunset sky, the tree, the bowed figure. The Potato Eaters portrays Van Gogh's affection for those whose lives are rooted in the earth. Though the sunset in The Stevedores at Arles is beautiful, it would not be half the painting without the main characters in the foreground, even though they are in shadow.

My new favorite, however, is The Starry Night Over the Rhone: the way the light shimmers on the water, the stars shine above, the lovers below. I had no words save for a poem.


Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone




Engine of being,
that reserve of desire
to which the artist bends
is light, that blaze
so sweet--thus also
darkness, that slit into reality
through which he unleashes color,
shape, shadow and story.
Like a priest celebrating
a mystery, he holds, lifts
what is holy, gives thanks,
breaking it into a billion living stars
in a night sky shivering,
on a silent river unlocked,
above two lovers with little to regret.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It's a Ba-rockslide!

Oh yeah, I'll be dancing to this song all day, with a smile so wide it'll take me through the next four years at least!

President Obama...my, how GOOD that sounds!

P.S. An election sign seen at a party in Teaneck, NJ:

Rosa sat...so Martin could walk...so Obama could run...so our children could fly.