Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Spirit Intercedes

A reflection on Acts of the Apostles 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27 for Pentecost

For a year or so when I was a little girl I was very afraid of the monster that lived under my bed. Now the monster was curious because it only came out at night. During the day I could sit on my bed and do homework or read without fear. But at bed time, pajamas on, teeth brushed, I’d enter my room and flip off the light switch for the over head light. (Apparently I did not have a lamp on a nightstand, although I don’t really remember). Anyway, once the light was off I had to walk across the room and, from a distance several feet away, jump into my bed to avoid the long arms of the creature that was surely waiting to reach out and grab me. The monster had these long tentacle kinds of arms – it could stay in the center under my bed and just reach its arms out around one side of the bed or the other to get me. I solved part of the problem by having one side of the bed against the wall – apparently the creatures arm could not squeeze between the bed and the wall. Then I had to sleep perfectly in the middle of the bed, because well, the arms were not long enough to reach from under the bed to the center of the bed – they could only get me if I slept near the edge. Fear of the night, fear of darkness, irrational fears.

Of course that fear of a monster under the bed left me many many years ago. Now I sleep in a bedroom with a window as big as the wall it rests in. From this window I can see the stars at night and during a full moon, the shadow of the Santa Rita’s. It is a breath taking view and sometimes when I wake up at 4am, and the stars are their brightest, I gasp at the sight before me. Lately, as we sleep with the window slightly open, we hear the coyotes as they wander and hunt through the arroyo just beyond our house. Sometimes their chatter is playful, but often it is haunting and eerie. I find myself wondering about the rabbits, ground squirrels, and quail who are awakened in the night by the coyotes, these small animals and their young, now possibly a meal for the hungry family of night hunters. Fear of the night, fear of darkness, real fears.

It’s been fifty days since Easter. Seven weeks since Jesus gathered with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Since that fateful night when the disciples could not stay awake, since Jesus was arrested and the disciples ran away or denied know him. It’s been six weeks since we heard about the women running to the Upper room to tell the disciples about the resurrection. Six weeks since Jesus himself appeared in that Upper Room to quell the doubts of Thomas, since Jesus beckoned the disciples out of their fears and back into the world again.

In the weeks between then and now we have listened to the stories of disciples trying to find their way again. Stories from the Acts of the Apostles of what those early days were like, as the Church was being formed. Decisions had to be made, decisions about who was in and who was out, and why. Decisions that ultimately led to an understanding that all were in and none were out. That’s what we hear today. After all the struggle to move beyond fears, both irrational fears and rational fears, after all the struggle to figure out what to do next, after all the struggle to really understand the Good News of new life in Christ, the disciples find themselves at a transformational juncture.

In the Jewish custom a feast was held each year, fifty days after Passover. What we hear in Acts today is likely the disciples gathering at just such a feast. Traditionally Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and the feast held 50 days later commemorates their arrival at Sinai, when Moses saw God in the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments which defined the Hebrews as the people of God.

As Christians we have come to understand the Passover as the time in which Jesus was crucified and then, resurrection. Now, 50 days later we celebrate Pentecost – the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples. Suddenly everyone speaking in their own native tongue is able to understand others who speak a different language. It would be as if we, speaking English, could suddenly understand Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and so on – and people from those countries could understand us, even as we continue to each speak our own language. This amazing break-through of language barriers, given through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, propels the disciples to proclaim the Good News of God’s love in Christ to all the world. Suddenly, in a burst of wind and fire, the disciples understand that the love they have known in and through Christ is a love meant for everyone. The disciples are not to guard this love, nor hide it away, nor contain it to just a select group. The power of the Holy Spirit on this day of Pentecost blows strong and fierce. It removes all barriers of fear and thrusts them into the world boldly. For a moment, maybe longer, their faith is strong and deep and real. It is open and generous and inclusive. It is the birth of the Christian Church.

Throughout history Christians have not always been able to live and proclaim our faith in this same bold, deep, open, generous, and inclusive manner. There are clear examples in history when Christians have failed miserable to do this. And yet, over two thousand years later, the church is still here. True, in some ways we continue to struggle over issues that divide us more than we struggle over the issues that unite us. We continue to have tendency to lose sight of the Good News of God’s love intended for all and instead focus more narrowly on who is in and who is out. But we are still here, most likely because of the ongoing power and presence of that same Holy Spirit who does not give up, but moves in and among us. Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves in big bursts like a gust of wind or a fire. Often times the Holy Spirit moves quietly through the night, piercing the darkness with sparks of light and love. Most often though I think that the Spirit is present in the prayers we cannot pray and the words we cannot say, in the moments when, caught by fear we lie stiff in the center of our beds. That is perhaps the moment when the Spirit is most obvious to us, the point when we are most able to comprehend that the Spirit helps us in our weakness; when we do not know how to pray as we ought, then and always, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Monday, May 25, 2009

From Loose Strands to a Mantle Upon My Shoulders

The first 13 years of my life were spent worshiping in a non-liturgical church. In fact most of that time was actually spent in Sunday School or the Tuesday afternoon youth group, kids were not invited into the corporate worship.

The first time I remember being in church with adults was one Easter morning when we went to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing at Temple Square. I must have been 4 years old, and like everyone else, dressed in my new frilly dress Easter dress, white gloves and hat. The second memory I have of corporate worship is many years later at a church outside of Madison, Wisconsin. I remember a dais with a podium and someone speaking. It is my first memory of receiving communion - people passing trays with little white paper cups, one cup with broken pieces of crustless white bread and the other cup with water.

A year or two after this memory my family and I stopped going to church. It was 1970 and the landscape of the world had changed. MS magazine was published. Racial riots had burned towns and killed people. Vietnam war protests and hippies. I was 14 and left the church to enter into a world just waiting for me to explore. And explore it I did. In high school I argued that there was no God. In college I went looking for enlightenment along the path of Carlos Castaneda. After college I looked for nirvana through Yoga, and sought to find harmony with the universe through Buddhist chanting. I read Shirley Maclaine and yearned for out of body travel and deep spirituality. I investigated crystals and new age spirituality.

And then, it seems to me, I woke up one day and thought: "I really like Christmas and Easter. And I really like Christmas and Easter in a deeper way than just the secular holiday. I like them because they celebrate life, celebrate Christ, celebrate God. I guess I must be a Christian. So. Now maybe I need to find a Christian church to worship in." It may not have actually happened in that simplistic "duh" way...but that is how I think of that moment, that Epiphany. As it happens I was also engaged and about to be married. We knew that we wanted to be married in a church. But he, a divorced and lapsed Roman Catholic and I, well, I was a lot of loose threads.

Following the counsel of the minister who married us we landed in a small local Episcopal Church on a crisp October morning. Our first child was 14 months old and one of several young children in the church. We found friends and community. And I had my first experience of liturgy and the liturgical year when Advent hit a few months later. Soon I was immersed in Ash Wednesday and the traditional fish fry supper followed by imposition of ashes, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. Then we hit Pentecost and I remember the priest reminding us to all wear red. That was the strangest thing I had ever heard of, an entire congregation all dressed in red?

My husband and I attended this church for ten years. It was this church, three priests later, and this congregation, that sponsored me in the ordination process. I was the first person, in their 150 year history, to be ordained in that church.

Fast forward ten years after that ordination and here I am, living 1800 miles away from that church and reminding the congregation I now lead and serve, to wear red on Pentecost. I've come to love Pentecost as a celebration of the birthday of the church. This year we'll celebrate with hot dogs, coleslaw and chips, and birthday cake. And, we'll wear red.

My life, once a bunch of loose threads from various strands of world religions and cultural spirituality, has been woven into a beautiful piece of fabric, a life filled with solid examples of the Holy Spirit at work. This fabric of faith now rests like a mantle upon my shoulders.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Battle Within

A reflection for Easter 7B on :John 17:6-19
"I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth

A few years ago I read Elaine Pagels book, The Origin of Satan. In this book Pagels examines the human tendency to create communities with clear boundaries defining who is “in” and who is “out,” who is “acceptable” and who is “not,” in other words: “us” and “them.” Human communities have created these boundaries for eons. For example, the ancient Egyptian word for “Egyptian” translates to mean “human” – in other words anyone who was not an Egyptian was not human. The Greek word for someone who is not Greek is barbarian.

The same is true of the ancient Hebrew tradition. In most of the ancient world, the god one worshiped was the god of that particular community, if you moved you would learn to worship a new set of gods. But the Hebrews were different. They worshiped a God who went with them, wherever they went. And they established rules; laws to help them live faithfully with their God and not assimilate the religious rituals of the local community. This enabled the Hebrews to draw a clear boundary that identified them as a people of their God.

The first century Hebrew communities included both traditional Jewish people and the emerging subgroup of Jesus followers who would eventually be known as Christians - and as a result they faced a unique challenge of identity. For a generation or so these two groups lived together and worshipped together. But in the year 72 there was a brutal Roman Jewish war, which nearly annihilated all the Jewish people and destroyed their temple. The temple was the primary place of Jewish identity – the temple was where God resided. Without the temple as the locus of their faith, people were wondering where God was and how they would now know God in their lives.

Some chose to follow God in the law, the torah. Others chose to follow God as expressed in the person of Jesus, who they saw as the fulfillment of the law and torah. And, as I said, for a time these two groups were able to live in the same small communities and worship in the same home synagogues and churches.

But with increased persecution from Rome and the threat of death, each group began to define itself in distinct ways, each gained clarity in who they were, and defined their particular way of knowing God. Thus, feelings between these two groups, the emerging Christian group and redefining Jewish group, became very tense. Eventually, the larger group - the redefining Jewish faction, who were those following the torah - forced the smaller, emerging Jesus following Christian group out.

Between the violence of the Roman Jewish war, the persecutions by the Roman Emperor, and the violence that probably ensued between the redefining Jewish group and the emerging Christian group, each community forged clear boundaries of who was in and who was out. Add to this the influence of Gnosticism, a religious philosophical perspective that believed that the world and everything in it were temporary shadow figures of what was really real. The really real things existed ONLY in heaven, the things on earth were only shadow images of the real things in heaven. So, from this multi-layered violence and the influence of Gnosticism the emerging Christians came to view life as a cosmic battle between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan, between good and evil, between spirit and flesh, between us and them, between the really real of heaven and the shadow of what was real as that which was on earth – and thus, everyone who was a Christian following Jesus was considered good, and everyone else was considered bad. It was this kind of apocalyptic, end of the world thinking that created the Book of Revelation and to some degree influenced the Gospel of John.

So, this is the backdrop to the Johannine community in which the Gospel we heard this morning was written. And according to Pagels, this started a process in which Christianity began to demonize “the other.” The sad reality is we’ve seen Christian communities do this through history, always with devastating effect: the crusades, slavery, the Holocaust….

Today’s Gospel highlights what has become known as dualism – and as I’ve just, said, in Christianity dualism is about light/dark, day/ night, spirit/flesh, above/below, and, to use the language of this Gospel: of this world/not of this world. In this dualistic perspective of John the things of this world are evil and things of the world to come are good. All of life is viewed as a cosmic battle between God, who is not of this world, and of Satan, who is of this world. Some early Christians believed deeply that they were literally in a battle between God and Satan for good or for evil. Some Christians today believe this same thing, two thousand years later.

Curiously enough our Gospel reading this morning is a prayer. Jesus is praying for the disciples, and through them, for us. His prayer is not intended to be one that divides human beings, one from another. Rather his prayer is one that calls us together. We are called to become united together in God’s love given to us through Christ. And we are called to live that love out in deep ways. Even in the midst of conflict the Gospel points us to see that Jesus is calling us to live as one, to live with love.

Gail Ramshaw in her book, “Treasures Old and New” states that much of the battle imagery that we hear in scripture, from Jacob wrestling with the angel to Jesus dying on the cross, is really a battle about faith. It is a battle that rages within our own inner selves as we struggle to know God in our lives and in our world. We do battle against principalities and powers that would pull us away from God, and if pretend otherwise we open ourselves up to those powers, and unwittingly allow them to rule us.

Living into the prayer that Jesus prays for us and through us points us to another aspect of the Judeo-Christian belief – we, all human beings, are made in the image of God. As such, God is everyone. The Orthodox Church acknowledges this when the priest, using incense, censes not only the icons but the members of the congregation. The incense, the presence of the Holy Spirit, salutes the image of God in everyone, and then rises up to God with that salute. Having the image of God in us does not make us God, it makes us vessels of God, the means through which God is active and alive in this world. Jesus reminds us that the battle we wage is within us, our ability or inability to allow God to work in and through us. Jesus reminds us that the way we win this battle is not through anger, hate, or excluding others, but through love.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Complete Joy

A reflection on the readings for Easter 6B: Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17

Yitzak was liberated from a concentration camp in 1945 after which he came to America and built a new life for himself. He studied, worked hard, and became a research physicist. Many years later, when he got cancer he enrolled in a workshop at Commonweal with the hope that he could recover from the disease through a variety of healing processes.

Commonweal is a nonprofit health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, California, founded in 1976. Among other things they offer retreats for cancer patients like the one Yitzak enrolled in. The retreats last a week and include a lot of different avenues for support and healing including, hugging, silence, yoga, walking, and meditation. Yitzak was not very comfortable with hugging, but he allowed others to hug him nonetheless.

On the fourth day, when the effects of the silence, meditation, and daily yoga, were beginning to affect the attendees Yitzak had an unusual experience. It seemed to him that through his closed lids he could see a deep pinkish light, very beautiful and tender. Startled he realized that the light seemed to emanate from his chest outward, surrounding him and the people in the room with him. The fact that it seemed to be coming from his heart made Yitzak feel particularly vulnerable and a little frightened.

Having survived a concentration camp Yitzak had learned to live with his heart held very close. He did not love many people, mostly just his closest family and friends. Living with a carefully guarded heart enabled him to feel safer, but now, as he felt this opening of love for the people in the room with him he began to feel afraid.
On the final day of the retreat the leader did some exercises to help the attendees tie up any loose ends that they might feel from their experience at the retreat. She asked Yitzak how he was feeling. “Oh,” he said, “Much better now.” “Why,” she asked, “what happened?” Yitzak replied, “One day I took a walk along the beach and I asked God if it was OK to love strangers.” God answered, “Oh, Yitzak, what is strangers? You make strangers. I don’t make strangers.” (adapted from Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen)

Each year in the Easter Season, for seven Sunday’s following Easter, we hear the story of the birth of the Christian church told through the Acts of the Apostles. The Christian story is a story of how strangers, transformed by love were suddenly able to understand one another, of how people from different walks of life were transformed into community and became one. This reading from Acts describes a portion of that journey bringing a traditional Jewish group into relationship with a group of Gentiles and the community was reformed in a new way.

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus reminds us of God’s inclusive love by showing how it is that we are all inter-related – God, Christ, you, me. The gift of God’s love poured out for us is made known in Christ’s invitation to abide in love. Abiding in love is also the way we keep the commandment. Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.

The word commandment as John uses it is not about obeying a “law,” the breaking of which could bring harsh punishment. The commandment to love in John means something like a “requirement” to love. This commandment to love builds on the summary of all the commandments - which Jesus defines as to love God, love self, and love others. This commandment, this love, this abiding in, this requirement means: “I love you AND I want you to love others.” Or more specifically: “Love others AS I have loved you.” It is not a romantic love, not the kind of love that brings two people together in passion. Rather this love is a love that gives of itself for the other – a love that strives to enable another to become the very best person they can become. I love you in such a way that you can become most fully who God intends you to be, and I hope that you will love others in this same way.

This love that Jesus speaks of is a love of action. It is the love that grows out of our baptismal covenant to care for others in this world; it is love that calls us to be the hands and heart of Christ.

Lawrence Kuschner, a rabbi and Jewish mystic describes this kind of love this way:

“Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle
And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.

But know this. No one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Like before the days when they used to seal
Jigsaw puzzles in cellophane. Insuring that
All the pieces were there.

Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.

And when you present your piece
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.
(Honey from the Rock)

God does not create strangers. We do. Human beings create divisions between one another. We define who is in and who is out. We make strangers out of people. But, when we are able to experience the depth of love God has for us, each of us, then we are able to love as God loves. God’s love will abide in us and we in God’s love. When the love of this abiding presence is put into action we can heal this world and. like a puzzle, make it whole. Abiding in love, love in action means, that my joy will be in you, and your joy will be in me, and therefore OUR joy will be complete.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Embracing the Feminine, Celebrating a Mothering Day

I had only been ordained a few months, and serving in my first call as a Curate in a large multi-clergy staff congregation, when I preached on Mother's Day for the first time. I chose to approach the sermon without rose colored lenses. I also chose to avoid flowery romanticized views of motherhood, although I was (am) the happy mother of two healthy, almost grown children. I used an illustration of a challenged mother, with a temper and bit of an inability to understand her kids. I think it included another woman who nurtured the children when the mother could not. I think I got it from Rachel Naomi Remen's book, "Kitchen Table Wisdom," but I could be wrong. I worked hard on the sermon, preparing to preach in the mandatory no notes, internalize the sermon, method of this congregation. I'm sure it was not a very good sermon, I had only been preaching a few months and still had no idea what I was doing.

The next day, in our Monday morning sermon review, I was scolded, well maybe that's too strong of a word, but I since I still remember it, I was firmly told that using that kind of an illustration on Mother's Day was wrong. We need to lift up mothers on Mother's Day, it should be positive, I was told. Um, I said, and what about the people who had less than perfect mothers, for whom Mother's Day is challenging? Well, I was told, that sermon was for another day.

So now I think of this every year as I prepare, or not, to preach on Mother's Day. What do we say? Most years I have chosen to just preach on the text and not mention Mother's Day at all, except in a brief comment during the announcements: "A happy mothers day to all of us, for we all have, or had, mothers - and also to those who are mothers. May you celebrate this day in the way you most enjoy."

Mother's Day is complicated. Generally speaking I like to spend the day with my kids and husband and go out for a nice dinner. I don't care to make to big of deal out of it. Granted, I am one who has, or rather since she is deceased, had a complicated relationship with my mother. In many ways she was not really a mother. Only 17 years older than I she was sometimes that older sister-like person who told me way too much about her personal life. For a time in my life, addicted to Valium and deeply depressed, she slept all day and all night. This went on for the better part of two or three years. I graduated from High School a year early and moved away from home. A year later my mother, separated from her second husband, had moved to the college town and enrolled in the University with me. I moved to the big city, a few years later she followed. Some years we were as close as can be, sharing a great deal. Some years we were not. By the end of her life we were barely speaking. She had become a recluse, confined to her room with vision loss and many other ailments.

What I like to remember of my mother is her sense of humor, her beauty and great intelligence. I harbor no resentment for the kind of mother she was, even though it wasn't really the kind of mother I needed. I loved her even as, in the last years of her life, I couldn't manage to be in her presence.

At one point in time, while in therapy, the therapist asked me where I found my nurturing. Given the mother I had, one who really was not capable of nurturing, where was I nurtured?

I think on Mother's Day the real event we need to celebrate is, who nurtured us? And who are we nurturing? I think it is important to have a day when we honor the role of women, who are often the primary caregivers and nurturers in our families and friends. I think we need to honor this feminine energy, female trait, and those who cared for us, female and male alike.

So on this Mother's Day, which really might be better called, Mothering Day, I celebrate all the women who have nurtured me.

I celebrate all the women who nurture others - families, friends, members of the congregation, people in hospitals, nursing homes, or otherwise in need. I celebrate women who have nurtured and are now, because of age or illness, are being cared for.

May you have a wonderful day doing what you enjoy most.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Way of the Three Steps

A Native American Way to Begin the Day:

Stand on Mother Earth. Face any direction you choose. Take one step forward, looking all around.

O Great, Holy Spirit, I take this step into the day you have given. I embrace all I see - the season, the wind, the fragrances, the weather. Let me always accept the day given with a grateful heart.

Take another step forward.

O Spirit of Life, I put my arms around myself, all that I am, all that I can be. I stand here in my own history, with all my mistakes and victories. I hold all those I will meet today, in my journeying and in my work. I try to walk gently on this earth. Let me walk gently through the lives of my work companions and friends. Though they make way for my passing, may they spring back, neither broken, nor bruised.

Take another step forward.

O glorious Spirit of Mystery, I put my arms around you. I do not know what will happen to me today, but I accept it. Give me a heart of courage and believing, so I may put my trust in you, and fear nothing.

From the Plains tribes: North American, found in WomanPrayers edited by Mary Ford-Grabowsky.

As a little girl my mother used to tell me that my paternal great great grandfather, who was Irish, married an Apache woman. Because my parents divorced when I was young, and I lost all contact with my father and his family, I was never able to confirm this. Nonetheless, it might explain why I have always had an affinity for Native American prayers, jewelry, artwork, and spirituality.

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