Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The word for the year is...

This morning when I awoke, I realized that it was the last day of this year, that it was time for another word, a new word to take me through the next year.

If you wish to see what were the previous words from these few years' past, click here.

Earlier this fall my doctor informed me that I am prediabetic, which means cutting down on carbs and sugar, substituting whole grains like quinoa and brown rice for white rice, drinking black coffee, you get the picture.

It also mean exercising more, which sounds dangerously close to a New Year's resolution.  These have a strong tendency to break, hence, the word for the year.  

So at first when I relaxed my mind and thought about the words in previous years and my doctor's prescription, the word that came to me was 'exercise'.  Too much like a resolution.  Not enough room for metaphor and multiple layers of meaning.  It's also good to have a goal with a higher likelihood of success; self-reinforcing.

The word for the year is...stretch.  

Stretch, as in when I get out of bed in the morning, do a sun salutation.

Stretch, as in find a yoga video I can work with.

Stretch, as in when I find myself and my spirit shrinking and shriveling, do something I wouldn't normally do.

Stretch, as in extend myself for the spiritual growth of another person (M. Scott Peck's definition of love).

Stretch, as in making myself more elastic, flexible, even as my approaching-fifty-years-old body and brain would like to remain static.

Stretch, as in reading something challenging every day.

One of my favorite Advent songs is "The Universe is Bending", and in its lyrics we are invited to stretch along with a universe that is stretching the way a woman's body stretches in order to give birth.

A new world is coming, and it is coming through us. Not through our passionate, inflexible convictions but through our ability to make room for something new, unpredictable, not-yet-imagined, life-giving.

We were made for this.

The Universe is bending,
Stretching long and stretching out,
Embracing all our struggles with
Gentle arms of Hope.
The Universe is bending, 
Stretching long and stretching out
And it’s leading toward Freedom
By the clear Light of Love


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

All the light we cannot see

(title borrowed from Anthony Doerr’s novel)

Luke 2: 1-16; Isaiah 9: 2-7
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
Christmas Eve 2014



            Most nights, before I go to bed, I read a few pages from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  Did you know that for the past 20 years or so, two-thirds of the United States cannot see the Milky Way in the night sky?  In our quest for the light, the light that shines in the darkness, that darkness has not overcome, we have allowed the light to overcome the darkness.  On the very best of nights, in say Montana or Colorado, we can see approximately 2,500 stars, a mere fraction of the 100-400 billion stars in our galaxy alone.  Most folks in the suburbs are lucky if they can see 250 stars on a moonless night.

            We have divided ourselves against the night, and enshrined the idea that light is good and dark is bad.  We install security lights.  Some stores and gas stations are open 24/7 with well-lit parking lots.  We’ve upset our circadian rhythms by lighting up the night.  Much of our work and entertainment is beholden to a screen of some sort, the light of which signals to our brains that it’s time to be awake no matter what time it is.

            And yet we need the dark of the night to restore us.  Before there was artificial light, we ceased our work and most other activity at sunset, went to bed with nightfall, and rose with the sun.  When there was more darkness, our relationship with the earth was more humble.  Somehow there was more time; technology’s promise now rings hollow.  

A map of artificial night sky brightness due to light pollution in North America. ©2001 Cinzano, P., Flachi, F., Elvidge, C.D.

            University of Oxford professor John Carey doesn’t think it’s just coincidence that the Enlightenment occurred around the same time as the appearance of gas lamps or that the invention of the electric light bulb came about a few years before Nietzsche announced that God is no more, by our own hand.  As we overtook the night, our sense of self as a species grew beyond us.  And when we had shrunk the night sky, when our collective sense of awe began to wane, it was then that we harnessed the power of the sun, like Apollo himself, and the nuclear age dawned, as well as the possibility of our utter destruction.

Long ago, yesterday
we sat and listened
to the sound of our own hearts
beating in the gloom
of the Hour of the Wolf.

It was once impossible
to remake the world in our image
as the eventide humbled us
into inky submission
at the end of day.

Electric light has transformed us
into zealous gods
no longer constrained by the darkness
that once kept our hubris at bay.

But we no longer hear our beating heart.

Andrew C. Peterson © 2014

            Which is why we still need the stories of Christmas, of Matthew’s star and Luke’s shepherds keeping watch by night; the beating heart of God enfleshed in a baby; his brave mother and faithful father who looked into the night sky and could see their place in it.  Sometimes, in order to see God, we need to turn off the lights.

            Astronomer Tyler Nordgren says that of course the stars are still out there.  They’re just waiting for us to pay attention again.  

O holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees; O hear the angels voices.
O night divine, O night when Christ was born.
O night divine, O night, O night divine.



Seize the night!  Make friends with the dark.  Let moonlight into your bedroom.  Take night hikes.  Make a wish on the evening star.  Close your eyes and sit inside yourself for a while.  Make peace with yourself.  From the dark of the womb we all come into this world.  Blessed be this night, this holy night, when Christ was born.  Amen. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

To always come home

Psalm 126
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 14, 2014


            Good God!  What a depressing Advent.  Everywhere around this wide world, it’s more bad news, from violent protests in Berkeley and Oakland, CA, to the Senate report on the CIA and its use of detention, rendition, and torture to floods and rock- and mudslides in California and Indonesia, from another typhoon in the Philippines to today’s second anniversary of the school shooting in Sandy Hook, CT.  And today is the third Sunday in Advent, or Gaudete (gow-day’-tee) Sunday, Latin for the command form of “rejoice”, when we light the candle of joy.  Really?

            It seems that the more appropriate Psalm would be these verses from Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down

and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth,

saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?


            God’s people were being held captive in Babylon.  The most painful form of torture was for the Babylonians to taunt the Israelites, commanding them to sing a song from home, and not just any song but a song of Zion.  A song sung by pilgrims making their way to the temple in Jerusalem, the temple that now lay in ruins.  And so the musicmakers hung up their harps on willow trees, as protest, for how could they sing Yahweh’s song in exile?  How could they sing a pilgrim song when they couldn’t go home, would not go home for several generations?

            And so how can we sing a song of joy in these times of unrest, of angry shouts and demonizing the other?  God knows we want to come home, to come to a place of peace and justice, of love and compassion for all.  Yet even when those released captives came home to Israel singing and laughing, after a while they realized that not all was wonderful.  There were those who had stayed behind, and each resented the other.  The returnees took charge of the rebuilding efforts, while those who had not been carried off into exile now became captive and oppressed by their sisters and brothers.  Those in exile returned home, and those who stayed survived, but it would take a great deal more to restore a divided people into one nation, as God’s people.

            Even though the Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, we are still a divided, partisan nation:  Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, black and white.  Ending a war is not the same thing as peace.  The Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act are not bookends to a closed era.  They are only the beginning of constant vigilance to right wrongs, to examine ourselves rather each other, and to enact good and just policies.  

Yet even so, there is good news to be had, signs and glimmers that we are on our way home.  Two protest stories you may not have heard:  One takes place in Richmond, CA; the other in Portland, OR.  A youth center in Richmond, CA organized a peaceful protest this past Tuesday, but with a slight twist.  Along with about 100 protesters calling for a reduction of police violence in communities of color stood the chief of police, his command staff, and other officers, as well as the mayor and council members, holding signs that read #BlackLivesMattter.  The city of Richmond has been proactive when it comes to community-based policing, ensuring that their police force is responsive and well-trained, as this protest demonstrated.  In actuality, it wasn’t a protest but more like an invitation to witness community leaders, police, and citizens working together and being willing to examine themselves. (Story update here.)

            The other story centers around a twelve-year-old boy named Devonte Hart.  Devonte came into this world with drugs in his bloodstream.  By the time he was four, he had smoked, drank alcohol, was familiar with guns, and had been neglected and abused.  He was pretty scary the first few years after he and his siblings had been adopted by Jen Hart and her wife Sarah.  But now, as violent as he had been, Devonte is deeply sensitive and compassionate.  One of his favorite charitable campaigns (and mine) is the Free Hugs movement.  Often Devonte will wear a “Free Hugs” sign in public places.  He was wearing one when he and his mom Jen were at Ferguson rally in Portland.

            When Devonte saw the police officers who were present to ensure a safe and peaceful protest, Devonte was in tears.  He had been struggling with all the news stories about police brutality and racism, not wanting to be fearful of police officers.  The day after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Devonte and his mother went downtown with signs that read “You Matter” and “Free Hugs”, and then joined the rally that was already in progress.

            Sgt. Bret Barnum of the Portland Police Dept. saw Devonte with tears streaming down his face. He motioned for Devonte to come over to where he was standing with his motorcycle.  They shook hands, talked about school and summer vacation, and what Devonte likes to do.  Then Sgt. Barnum looked at the sign around Devonte’s neck and asked him if he could have a hug.  A photographer, Johnny Nguyen (hwen), was in the right place at the right time, and thus was born “the hug that was felt around the world”.

            It is stories like these that remind us kindness can come out of great pain, that within the seeds of sorrow, watered by rivers of tears, are harvests of joy.  Joy, not happiness.  Henri Nouwen wrote that joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.”

            Joy is our spiritual home that we can always come home to, even when home is in ruins, when relationships are strained or broken, when we’re not sure what the future holds.  Advent is the practice of learning to live joyfully while we’re waiting for God to act.  Meanwhile, God is behind the scenes, always moving, still speaking, in ways that sometimes pass beneath our notice, like the thousands of police officers who create goodwill in our communities; youth like Devonte who make a difference just by being themselves; you and me when we live from that joyful place that nothing can touch.

            Someone told me that a police officer’s plan, every day, is to always come home.  That’s God’s plan for us too, to come home, and not only that, but to come home singing.  Every last one of us.  Amen. 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Getting heard

Isaiah 40: 1-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 7, 2014


 A voice says, “Cry out!”  What shall I cry out?

            Jon Stewart didn’t know what to say.  He couldn’t scrounge one bit of comedy—who could after the grand jury decision regarding the death of Eric Garner.  One of the protesters in Ferguson described himself to psychologist Marva Robinson as being underwater.  He felt like he couldn’t breathe, didn’t know if he could make it to the surface, that his skin color stops others from treating him fairly when it comes to law enforcement and the justice system.  Eric Garner said that he couldn’t breathe at least more than once, which is all it should take to get heard.

A re-reading from the prophet Isaiah, as imagined by Timothy Wotring, a seminary intern at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC:

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Ferguson, to Brooklyn, to Staten Island, and cry to them that they have not been forgotten; they are loved deeply and from the Lord’s hand hope shall be given.  
A megaphone cries out: “In the streets prepare the way of justice, make straight in city parks a highway for our God. Every empty lot shall be a home, and every Trump tower - rent controlled apartments; unfair minimum wages shall be living wages, and riot gear will collect dust. Then the presence of God shall be unveiled and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.” 

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry out? Is it for the unjust deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley or Tamir Rice? Or the giant gap in economic inequality? Or that American’s democracy is owned by the Koch brothers and other corporate elites?” All people are fragile; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades; WE CAN’T BREATHE…but the breath of God infuses hope and rises in communities where truth cannot be suffocated. For the end of police brutality is at hand.

Get us up to the main streets, O Ferguson, bearers of another world; Shout with strength, O New York City, heralds of justice, shout louder, do not fear; say to the police departments across America, “BLACK LIVES MATTER! BLACK LIVES MATTER!” See, the God of justice comes with might, and her hands serve the lowly; her comforting presence ushers in change. She will bring water for those too tired to shout anymore; she will rub the feet of those too tired to march anymore, and she will carry all in her bosom, and gently lead us to a new heaven and new earth, one without murders by choking or trigger happy cops.”

            Now this scripture makes sense, this day, this week.  Now it can be heard with the power it was intended to have.  To the Israelites in captivity in Babylon, the original reading was good news for them.  For so long it seemed God was absent and did not hear the cries of God’s people.  Which is why we need to be careful when we read from Isaiah during the season of Advent, the season of waiting for God to act.  Christianity has a bad habit of fine-tuning its hindsight by reading Jesus into the messages of the prophets:  Jesus is the shepherd, Jesus is the suffering servant, Jesus is the long-awaited messiah.  But in the story of God’s people, this hasn’t happened.  We can’t even say “yet”, because our Jewish sisters and brothers are still waiting.

There are times we don’t know if God hears our cries, if God is deeply present or seemingly absent.  When we are in the middle of great crisis, seismic change, chaos, violence, oppression, when we can’t see the hopeful future to come, we can be tempted toward despair and retreat into silence and our own little corner of the world.  What can we possibly do?  What good would it do to cry out, raise our voices and join them with others?  Who would hear us?  Would it make a difference?  In our worship, in our life together, in our story as God’s people, we need to hear, to see this futility, this anguish, this longing for hope and justice, this bone-deep desire for an everlasting peace in the scriptures, without rushing to Jesus as the answer.

How often have we shared with a friend or spouse or partner a problem or difficulty that we can’t see our way out of, and the one listening has suggested a solution or some advice, some kind of fix—because they love us?  Oftentimes there’s nothing for our painful situation; no cure, no way forward except for one excruciatingly small step followed by another.  All we really want is for someone with skin on to hear us, so we know we’re not alone.

We’re all called to be God-with-skin-on for each other, no matter what color that skin is.  Joining our voices with our African-American sisters and brothers says “We hear you.”  Mourning with families who have lost someone due to police brutality says “We hear you.”  Reading scripture from the point of view of the oppressed in this time says “We hear you.”  When the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter becomes important to everyone and not just blacks, it says “We hear you.”  Putting aside our assumptions and our own point of view and asking “Tell me your story” says we are ready to listen.

Ultimately, it is not us who needs to get heard, but God.  Yes, God is still speaking: speaking the language of the unheard in riots and angry protests, lying down in the streets stopping traffic, crying “I can’t breathe” from the cross.  Underneath all of this, God is speaking tenderly to us so that we might hear words of peace and comfort.  But God’s comfort is usually a strange one.  The Hebrew word for “comfort” has verb forms that can also be translated as “changed minds”, “repent”, “think better”.  Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  God intends us for peace but a peace that comes as a result of a changed mind.

Change your minds, O think better, my people.  Speak tenderly to each other.  350 years of state-sanctioned racism was far too long, painful, violent, costly.  50 years of civil rights and 6 years of an African-American president is only the beginning.  Your great-great-great-grandfathers and –mothers couldn’t have imagined this day, yet didn’t give up.  A voice cries out, from the undiscovered country, that wilderness place called the future:  one day everyone will be on a level playing field: black and brown and white, male and female and everyone in between, gay, straight, bi, queer and trans, rich and poor, young and old, and everyone in between.  This is God’s glory revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  Amen.