Monday, December 31, 2012

Peace, Rest, Gratitude....claiming it while I am able

Another quiet start to one of my final days of staycation. I have a small black cat snuggled on my lap between my belly and the laptop. Another cat is comfy under the Christmas tree, her favorite spot this time of year. Two old dogs are snoring nearby while the younger dogs gulped their breakfast, did their business outside and ran back upstairs for more sleep. Bach adagios are playing softly, adding to the calm of the morning. The sun is rising but it is a cloudy day so the light outside has a blue cast do it, the ground, trees, and houses, drenched in frozen snow, a waft of smoke rising from the chimney of a house across the street. I have a fire burning in the fire place, too. And a giant mug of steaming hot coffee with cream and honey. (Yes, I put honey in my coffee....raw, unfiltered, local honey - good for the immune system and allergies, too, they say).

Tonight, with little fan-fare my husband, son, and I will ring out 2012 and bring in the New Year. We'll have a meal (beef roast marinated in port and topped with Gorgonzola cheese and crushed peppercorn. The marinade will become a sauce, reduced with cranberries added - festive. Also twice baked potatoes and steamed asparagus - simple, but festive). We'll watch some movies and drink tea. I'll probably knit. It will be our typical night. No big party no big fanfare no big deal. Quiet.

Tomorrow my husband and I will drive west, across the state of Michigan, to meet up with our daughter. We've had her dog, Oliver, since Christmas Eve day. She left him here so she and Keith could go to a family party at his parents (too big of a party for a big dog) and then go out tonight, New Year's Eve without needing to board him. It seems boarding him stresses him out and he gets very sick.

He is such a nut! Here he is in one of my favorite photos, waiting for our daughter on the back of the sofa in the office of the barn where she works....

But here, he's been fine. He is so use to and comfortable with our dogs, it's his pack, and he just fits right in. We like having him here too - he's a big goof. So, tomorrow, a five hour round trip drive to drop him off. We'll probably have a quick lunch at the meet-up.

Today I'm thinking of the simple pleasures of life: coffee, the New York Times, a fire in the fireplace, sleeping cats and dogs, and a slow start to my day. Soon I'll be back in the fray - busy preparing and taking care of a million things at once. But for now, peace, rest.

I watched a recap of 2012 on the news last night and remarked at all the tragedies and challenges of this year - so difficult for so many people - most of it violence and bad weather. This year, all things considered, has not been too bad for me, personally. There are some challenges, but also many blessings. I live with a grateful heart. 

 I hope you find some time for peace and rest. Or, if it is your preference, a good night out to celebrate. What are you up too as we ring out 2012?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Thirteen Years of....Joy

Thirteen years ago, on December 28th I was ordained a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church. (Six months later, on June 28th, to the priesthood). That year the feast of St. John the Evangelist was transferred to December 28, supplanting the usual feast day of Holy Innocents (the day honoring the children killed by Herod - according to scripture- in his vain attempt to rid the world of the Christ-child). I much preferred the idea of an ordination on the feast of St. John. It was however the end of the 20th century, one of the last days of 1999. We all wondered what was going to happen when 2000 rolled in a few nights later. Would computers stop working? Would the stock market crash? Would the apocalypse come?

Thirteen years is not a very long time to be ordained. In some ways it still feels so fresh and new. Just like in some ways I still feel twenty-something instead of nearly fifty-six. I think that's a good thing. I don't want my ministry to feel stale and old, tired and worn out. I want to always stay fresh and young, active and healthy, alert and energized. I suspect though, that one day, as I prepare for retirement this will not be so, but that's for another time. For now I want to be vibrant and young in ministry.

On the other hand rarely does something arise in ministry (and in life in general) that I have not already experienced somewhere along the way. I almost always have some experience, real lived experience, to fall back on. I can usually assess from the previous experience what worked and what did not and how I want to respond now. That is a good thing, too. It is a source from which wisdom grows.

No doubt I still wonder from time to time. I wonder about what I am saying when I preach - who am I to stand up and say anything? I am just an ordinary person, not particularly intelligent, at least not in the brilliant mind kind of way. I'm not a particularly gifted writer. I am just an ordinary person who somehow found herself called into this life of ministry. It is not a calling that I considered when I was younger. It is not a calling that I wanted. I came to it quite circumstantially and round about, through volunteer work as a massage therapist on a pediatric unit in a hospital.  It has certainly stretched me beyond my wildest imagination. My undergraduate degree is in dance. How in the world did I get accepted into not just one but two masters level graduate degree programs - M.Div/MSW? Seriously. But I did get accepted and I did pretty well in school and in my field ed classes too. And I even got ordained at the end of the four years it took to get that dual degree.

So now thirteen years later. It's hardly anything in the grand scheme of things. Other people my age, who have been ordained twenty some years are preparing to retire. I am in the middle of my vocation-time.

It also feels as if I have been doing this work, living this call for ever. I feel as if I have always been a priest, as if all the work I did before ordination was just preliminary, preparation for the work I am doing now.

I love what I do. I love being a parish priest. I love that every day is different. I love that in one moment I am writing an article for the parish newsletter and in the next moment I am making a hospital call, then I am preparing liturgy, planning meetings, working on a Bible study or Christian Formation class, or reading or preparing a sermon. Time flies, I am always busy. But I am grounded in work of the best kind - finding the connection between life and God - and helping others to find that connecting point too.

Thirteen years. Before I was ordained I had a bit of a rocky time - some of those who served on the Commission of Ordained Ministry challenged my call. For awhile I wasn't certain if they would ordain me. One person, during the challenge, shot down my assessment that ordained ministry was my call, the joy of my heart. Bitterly he said to me, "What joy will you find when your job ends up cleaning out the gutters of the church more than tending to that which you love?" In that moment my heart broke for this man. Clearly his ministry had left him broken and his resistance to me was more about his grief than my ability. Joy, I thought, is something other than what he thinks it is - joy is the degree to which I can find grace and peace in God even if my work involves cleaning out gutters and then writing a sermon and then making a hospital visit and then dealing with the disgruntled. 

At most I have another 16 years until I retire. So, not quite at the midpoint, but nearing it. All is well enough. I live with a grateful heart. Even as I sometimes wonder how I ended up in this work and why and who am I to do this - I also know, deep in my soul, that this is exactly what God desires of me. In response I will continue to embrace this call with integrity and passion and, yes, joy, too.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Friday Five: Recycle, Regift, Reflect

Deb, over at RevGals offers this Friday Five: As we take a breather from the busy weekend of Sunday/Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, it's time to reflect on the past year. It's hard to move out of this holiday season with its delights and celebrations. Here at our home, we've barely finished the eggnog. The tree is still up and our cats delight in knocking off the lower (unbreakable) ornaments. As we are rounding the final turn on the year 2012, I hope you'll play along with these questions. :)
1. What is some "old news" this year that you'd like to repeat for 2013? - I lost a little weight and hope to continue to lose a little more.
2. What "new thing" have you started that you want to keep going in 2013? - I added more cardio to my exercise routine, having found a good number of options on YouTube.
3. What event, experience or gift would you just as soon "Return to Sender"? Maybe it was a disastrous sermon, a congregational kerfuffle, a vacation nightmare, or your own mis-step. It can be funny or sad. - I gained weight last year at an astonishing pace. It worried me, thinking something was wrong. I've determined that it is primarily the result of a lot of stress (belly fat) and not enough cardio exercise. So I'm working on that.
4. Share the brightest bit of joy that was a part of your year. - At the church we are exploring the possibility of helping a church in Africa build a school. This is a very exciting prospect as we prepare to send a group of people to that country to learn more about the project and how we can work with them. We have also had some new families join the church, lots of little kids - always a delight to my heart. And both of my kids are healthy and in college. My daughter is slowing moving from her career as an equestrian into something that will hopefully provide a more stable career for her.
5. Share a picture that says far more than words. (You can use it to illustrate one of the above.) 
Me with two of my brothers, one who had throat cancer.

Love our community garden - we eat so well as a result.
Share a recipe! I'm in the doldrums and need some healthy eating options for my menu planning. Soup, stew, main dish, side dish or a healthy dessert - any and all are welcome!

 Recipe: Whole-Wheat Zucchini Bread (made originally from zucchini grown in the garden...)

Dry ingredients:

1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose unbleached white flour
1/3 cup or more of wheat bran
1 Tablespoon cinnamon ( or more)
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Wet ingredients:

2 eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup canola oil (or peanut)
3/4 cup plain yogurt (I didn't have enough yogurt so I included some sour cream)
1/3 cup milk
1 cup sugar, white or brown
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups finely grated zucchini
1 green apple, peeled, cored, and chopped

8 ounces of cream cheese

Preheat oven to 350°F. Oil a 9×4 inch loaf pan

In a bowl, sift together dry ingredients and set aside.
In a large bowl, beat eggs until foamy; beat in eggs, yogurt, buttermilk, oil, sugar, and vanilla. Combine well. Stir in grated zucchini and apple
Fold flour mixture into the wet ingredients and stir until combined.
Spoon half of the batter into a greased 9×4 loaf pan. Add a line of cream cheese to make a center filling in the bread. Top with the remaining batter. Bake for approximately 65 minutes.

Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes in the pan. Loosen the sides and remove from pan. Cool loaf completely before cutting.

For zucchini bundt cake
Instead of apple add dark chocolate chunks, i used Bliss dark chocolate chopped and use milk instead of yogurt/sour cream/ milk combo. Bake 50+ minutes in a greased bundt cake pan.

Enjoy with a scoop of vanilla ice cream at night or as a fabulous accompaniment to morning coffee....and, healthy too!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Quiet Christmas Day after....

The morning has dawned, late and dark as a winter storm approaches. The air feels heavy with anticipation. In this little region of metro Detroit, between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, storms coming from the west typically blow north or south of us. The storm heads straight for us until it gets to Ann Arbor, about 45 minutes west, and then they split and go around us. It's very odd. This storm however is blowing up from the south heading north east and we are due to get it full-on. We won't get the worst of it, that will happen south of us, in Ohio and elsewhere. But we are anticipated 4-6 inches of snow. That is enough to count as a snow storm. The measly dusting we got on Christmas Eve was beautiful, but it really wasn't anything to get excited about. 

Before the storm hits full on we hope to go to the Henry Ford Imax and see The Hobit. We wanted to do this yesterday but they were closed on Christmas. We could have seen it at another Imax, but we decided to wait, thinking that the Henry Ford Imax will be better. Instead, yesterday, we went to see "This Is 40..." not an award winner but a curious film. I alternately hated it and liked it. It was a little bit too much like watching someones real life. It was annoying in parts, hilarious in others, tender and honest, and choppy. Life can be choppy sometimes. There seemed to be no real plot or story line, just a glimpse into the life of this couple as they struggled to turn 40. As I approach my 56th birthday in February I can relate to struggles with aging. Although turning forty was not that hard for me, 30 was and 50 was. Turning 30 was marked by a miscarriage. Turning 50 was the impetus for launching this blog....But at forty I was busy being a mom and a wife and a full time grad student working on a dual degree M.Div/MSW (Masters of Divinity and Masters of Social Work. I don't even remember turning 40.

Anyway, this morning I am listening to Bach, a fire in a fireplace, a large mug of coffee. The Christmas tree lights one end of the room with a gentle glow. A winter storm is coming and I'm on vacation for a week. I look forward to some rest, some peace, a time for renewal. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bread of Life in Human Hands

 A reflection on the readings for Christmas wherein the story of the birth of Christ is told. The following prayer will open the candle-lit worship service at 11pm Christmas Eve:

When the world was dark
and the city was quiet,
you came.

You crept in beside us.

And no one knew.
Only the few
who dared to believe
that God might do something different.

Will you do the same this Christmas, Lord?

Will you come into the darkness of tonight/today's world;
not the friendly darkness
as when sleep rescues us from tiredness,
but the fearful darkness,
in which people have stopped believing
that war will end
or that food will come
or that a government will change
or that the Church cares?

Will you come into that darkness
and do something different
to save your people from death and despair?

Will you come into the quietness of this city/town,
not the friendly quietness
as when lovers hold hands,
but the fearful silence when
the phone has not rung,
the letter has not come,
the friendly voice no longer speaks,
the doctor's face says it all?

Will you come into that darkness,
and do something different,
not to distract, but to embrace your people?

And will you come into the dark corners
and the quiet places of our lives?

We ask this not because we are guilt-ridden
or want to be,
but because the fullness of our lives long for
depends on us being as open and vulnerable to you
as you were to us
when you came,
wearing no more than diapers,
and trusting human hands
to hold their maker.

Will you come into our lives,
if we open them to you
and do something different?

When the world was dark
and the city was quiet
you came.

You crept in beside us.

Do the same this Christmas, Lord.

Do the same this Christmas.

(Iona Community)

Once there was a man who lived next door to a church. Despite this fact he spent every Sunday sleeping through the worship service. One morning he awoke early, just in time to hear, through the open window, some verses of scripture being read. In the passage God instructs the children of Israel to place twelve loaves of bread on the holy table.

The man, in his half-awake bewildered state, believed that God had spoken to him directly, instructing him to place twelve loaves of bread on the altar in the church. The man felt somewhat honored at the thought that God needed him. But, given that he was wealthy enough to do anything, he also felt somewhat foolish that all God wanted was bread. Giving bread did not seem very important. Nonetheless the man got up and made twelve loaves of bread. 

Later, the man entered the church with his bundle of bread and wondered how he could possibly leave it without being seen.  Finally the room was empty and he was able to place the bread on the table, as he did so he said, “Thank you, God for guiding me in your desire. Pleasing you, God, fills me with delight.” And then the wealthy man left.

No sooner had the wealthy man gone than the poorest man in town came into the church and knelt in a pew to pray. All alone he poured out his heart and told God how he had nothing, not even enough food to feed his family for the week. Then the man saw the twelve loaves of bread on the altar and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle! Blessed are you, O God, who answers prayers.” He collected the bread and ran home to share it with his family and neighbors.

Minutes later the wealthy man returned, curious to know what God had done with the bread. Slowly he climbed the stairs to the holy table where he saw that the bread was gone. “Oh my God,” he whispered, “You really needed the loaves! I thought you were just kidding. This is wonderful. You can bet that next week I will bring twelve more loaves!”

The following week the rich man returned with twelve loaves of bread. He placed them on the holy table and left. Shortly there-after the poor man returned and once more began his litany of woes. Then, again, he saw the bread on the holy table and felt that his prayers had been answered.

And so began a weekly ritual that lasted twenty years. The rich man baked twelve loaves of bread and placed them, once a week, on the holy table. And once a week the poor man came, said a prayer, and found the bread. It became such a routine that neither man gave it much thought.

Then one day the priest, detained in the sanctuary longer than usual, witnessed this amazing and odd ritual. First she saw the richest man in town place on the holy table twelve loaves of bread. Then she saw the poorest man in town come and take those loaves of bread. 

The priest summoned both men to come and meet her. Then the priest questioned the men about their actions. At first the men were ashamed, one thinking he had given bread to God and the other thinking the bread was from God. They vowed to never to do this again. But the priest said, “Each of you look at your hands. Yours,” she said to the rich man, “Are the hands of God giving food to the poor. And yours,” she said to the poor man, “are the hands of God receiving gifts from the rich. In this way, God is present in your lives. Go and continue baking and receiving. Your hands are the hands of God and your lives are intertwined .”

Our scripture stories remind us, over and over, that God acts in and through the lives of human beings. God acted through Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and from these ancient people God builds a nation of people who listen and follow God’s desire. Later, as we hear in Luke, God acted through Mary and Joseph. God calls them to bear forth into this world, the very life of God.  The mystery of this night/day, of Christmas, of the birth of God into human flesh, of the Incarnation, is manifested in the reality of God choosing to act in and through human life.

For Christians it is the Incarnation that is primary, from which everything else is possible.  It is the birth of God in human flesh that assures us of God’s presence with us. God chose to manifest God’s love in human flesh. God chose to work in and through human lives.  It is the birth that shows us, as Christians, how to live as faithful people. It is the birth that eventually directs us to the brokenness in human life, to recognize all the ways we reject God’s love. It is the birth that leads to the life, and a sad and tragic death that leads to the new life again – all with the assurance that God’s love is given over and over, given to us exactly as we are, in all our brokenness. 

In this Christmas season, with many of us still raw from the tragedies of this year, of lives taken too soon, too young, let us embrace anew the birth of God’s love in the Christ child. For life is full of tragedy, even the life of Jesus, God’s child contained pain and suffering. 

The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ assure us that God is always present. God is present at our birth. God is present in our lives. God is present and caring in our suffering. God is with the dying. And God is working through the pain and brokenness of this world to bring forth new life.

When the world is dark, Christ creeps in beside us, to love us. Born in and through the darkness, God’s love comes into the world to tend to our brokenness. Birthed from the darkness of Mary’s womb like the darkness of our lives, the light of Christ is born. In darkness life begins and brings forth hope, love, peace, and joy.

As Christians we are called, through baptism, to be the Body of Christ, which means we are called to bring forth God’s love in and through our lives – as a church, as a community, and as individuals. 

The living bread of Holy Eucharist is one of the primary ways we know the presence of the living God.

Give us this day our daily bread.
I am the bread of life, which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

The bread that Christ gives us is the food of love, nourishing our hearts and souls.  Fed by the love of God in Christ we are called to heal the sick, called to care for the poor, called to reconcile the broken-hearted.

Come, let us share in the one bread, that we may be a source of hope for others.

Let us become the food of love that will heal this broken world.

 Let us be Christ’s hands and heart in the world, may all our actions and words bring forth peace.

God was born into the world a small vulnerable baby, trusting human hands to hold their maker.  May we hold that trust tenderly and through it bring forth peace, hope, and love.  May the joy of our lives bring joy to the world.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Rhythm of Life Claims My Soul

 A reflection on the Gospel of Luke for Advent 4C, wherein Mary pregnant with child goes to be with her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant with child in her old age. Mary sings the Magnificat: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord..."

Goodness. Here we are, Advent Four, already. Typical for this time of year the season of Advent has flown by! Such is the nature of life. 

Jan Richardson an artist, author, minister and retreat leader,  is offering an on-line Advent Retreat called The Illuminated Advent, and she said this recently:

“I gave up striving for balance a long time ago. But I do need an underlying rhythm to my days, some beats that help restore me and return me to my life.”[i]

I can completely relate to this – the idea that balance is not the goal, rather the goal is listening too and adapting to the rhythm of one’s life.

Etty Hillesum, protected people during the Nazi invasion of Holland, kept a dairy of her life. She paid attention to the beating of her own heart in the midst of the horrors around her. She  wrote: "Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes." [ii].

Having a sacred rhythm to our days, a way of moving in the world that aligns us with the heartbeat of God, enables our lives to take on new meaning and purpose.[iii]

But this Advent season has also been marked by tragedy and sorrow. Perhaps you, like me, feel a bit more vulnerable. Following the tragedy of nine days ago, learning to live within the heart-beat of God seems more elusive and more crucial than ever. 

I invite you to take a moment, just to breathe…. Close your eyes, if you wish. Take a snow-flake, gift tag, or star from the basket write on it. Write something that you are grateful for – a person, an event, anything that has brought you moment of gratitude. Then we will hang them on the Christmas tree – during the peace or after communion or after the service. Leave them on the table under the tree and we’ll hang them higher up once we bring out the ladder to finish greening the church.

And then, when you are finished, just be still. After a moment of silence, I am going to share a short reflection by Caryll Houselander.

 “When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defense. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of the self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish, and some day to bring forth, the life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in its heart. This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation. 

By his own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: he was absolutely helpless; he could go nowhere but where she chose to take him; he could not speak; her breathing was his breath; his heart beat in the beating of her heart. Today Christ is dependent upon us."

This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent we must carry him in our hearts to where he wants to go, and there are many places to which he may never go unless we take him to them.” (The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander)

Houselander, known as a Christian mystic, was born in the early 1900’s and became a prolific writer and artist. Most of her writing speaks of Christ within each of us –ordinary, broken, imperfect, challenged, human beings. 

The season of Advent is a time to ponder how it is that Christ is in and within us. Our reading this morning from Luke reminds us that God made a home in the body of Mary. Her willingness to birth God into the world brought forth the means by which God comes into the world in human flesh, the incarnation. God comes in human hands and hearts to heal, to love, to be present in and through our lives. 

Houselander reminds us that just as God resided in Mary, so God chooses to reside in us, that we can be the means through which God’s love continues to be poured into the world. Let us be attentive to God’s love in our breath, the rhythm of God resounding in the beating of our hearts, God’s presence in our words, and in our actions. May this be a tender time.

[i]Jan Richardson, The Illuminated Advent Retreat Week 2 Day 2
[ii] Jan Richardson, The Illuminated Advent Retreat Week 2 Day 2
[iii] ibid

Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Five: Almost Christmas!

Jan, over at RevGals offers this Friday Five:
"... for this holiday Friday Five, let's have a free-for-all: Write 5 items about anything connected with Christmas, which of course includes Advent. Be personal, professional, spiritual or however you are feeling!"
1. I'm tired. It has been a very busy Advent Season. Flush and full and vibrant - and mostly good - except for the horrible tragedy in Newtown, Conn. (Which affected me deeply, as it did all of us). I'm tired and yet, there is more to do. My daughter arrives tomorrow. After church on Sunday we will have our family Christmas. Then my daughter leaves on Monday and I will lead worship for three services. By Tuesday at noon I'll be done. And ready for a week of rest.

2.  I have a funeral today, for a fine man who made his way to the church I serve just about a year ago. He was getting on in years and having memory loss issues - so instead of driving into Detroit to attend his church he came to ours, just a few blocks away. Last summer he became ill and then died the other day. He was a gentleman and scholar, a teacher. He had no family and who knows how many friends remained? I will celebrate his life in the chapel of the church with maybe one or two other people. And I will go to the cemetery and inter his body. I may even shed a few tears.

So - not exactly Christmas related - but it is because anyone who has a funeral this week, this close to Christmas knows just how hard it is to squeeze one more thing into your schedule. But I said yes without hesitation. Because he as that kind of person. I loved the man even though I hardly knew him. Rest in peace, Ben.

3. My tree is up. The cookies are mostly baked. Our menu is planned. Tomorrow we have a little left to do - some grocery shopping, a cheesecake to make, gifts to wrap. But my sermons are done, minus last minute tweaking.

4. It snowed this morning. Only a tiny bit, a dusting. But it is pretty. Surely, that is Christmas.

5. and then there is this song, in my head this morning, a week after the tragedy, and a heart full of hope that we humans can learn to live less violently, less angry, with less of a sense of entitlement.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fragile Trust

I grew up practicing drills in school. The alarm would sound and we would all scramble to the floor, hunch under our desks, knees bunched up, and our arms over our heads. Air raid drills for the next event of nuclear war fare.I grew up with the real potential for mass killing. Any day it was possible.

Nuclear testing took place not far from where I grew up, the winds blowing from the western desert region of Utah carried the residue of toxic, cancer causing, waste. The potential for a nuclear bomb was real to us.

Then the drill practices and that kind of thinking stopped. I don't remember when, how, or why. Maybe it's because I moved away from the west? When I was ten we moved to Wisconsin. When I was fourteen we moved to Texas. Then, when I was fifteen my family moved to Chicago, a city that became my home for forty years.

The first twenty-some years I lived in Chicago I took public transportation everywhere. I would ride buses and trains late at night and early in the morning. I was pick-pocketed, trailed by "crazy" and encountered men, sitting next to me, jerking off.

But for the most part thousands of human beings piled onto buses and trains and walked down streets together, went into huge shopping malls and office buildings, airports and airplanes, and schools, all trusting that we were safe. Trusting that, for some reason, no one was going to do something horrible like pull out a gun and shoot us all. Or poison the water or spray us with poison gas.

I remember being aware of this and feeling rather astonished that we lived in a world where civility was such that no one every acted out, no mass killings occurred. Still, some days I would climb the stairs to the "El" or up the bus steps and wonder, "Could this be the day?"

More often, however, I felt something almost like awe. Awe that each day all these people would come together, complete strangers and go about our business and be safe. We would go through our day, maybe a word would be exchanged, maybe a conversation, maybe not. But we, the communal "we" ended each day safe.

No doubt I always felt at risk as an individual. I always knew I could be robbed, or shot, or raped, and killed. That was a fact that kept my eyes open and my guard up. Something like this could happen to any one any time.

But whole schools, rooms, offices, buses full of us, all at once?

No. That didn't happen...even though I wondered about the fragility of it all, the trust it took to be in public and know that we human beings were all living an unspoken agreement - we will not hurt one another.

I think these were the days before semi-automatic weapons became available to the general public. The late 1970's through the early 1990's.

I grew up in the west. Everyone had (has) guns. Guns are vital to life. When I moved back to the west everyone told us to buy a gun. For rattle snakes and Javelina and mountain lion and coyotes. We would need one. We didn't buy a gun, but I thought about it. The wild life scared me. But guns scare me more.

When I moved to Wisconsin I was in the fifth grade. There, at both the end of the year camping trip and the summer Girl Scout camp I learned to shoot a bow and arrow and how to load and shoot a rifle. Target practice was a daily "sport."

I grew up in a house where my mother said, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." My mother worried about police states. Communism and McCarthyism were real to her. If my mother were alive and read "The Hunger Games" series she'd probably think the second amendment would protect us from ever entering into that kind of state.

My mother's words are formed inside of me. My childhood experiences leave me cautious about gun control. And yet, in my core, I hate guns. I'm not sure I could use one to save my life. I hope I never have to know the answer.

So, I have no idea what the solution is to the problem  of mass shootings in our country.

I do think the problem is huge and complex and will require more than legislation on gun control and mental health. I think we have a problem that is affecting our health. Why do we have children who display irrational, violent behavior? I know a number of parents struggling - just as this mom.

Some of the kids I know who behave this way were adopted, and had bad experiences in the orphanage. Not abuse, but neglect. Some of the kids live in their biological households with highly attuned educated parents who work hard at intervention, but the struggle remains, just like the mom above.

Is it the additives and preservatives and artificial color and flavorings we use? Is it plastic? Is it too much stimuli to violence on television, video games, and movies? Is it access to guns and semi-automatic weapons? Is it lack of sufficient adequate mental health care? Do we really need to create a paper trail, have our kids carried away by the police and locked in the psych unit (yes, sometimes parents do need to do this). But why?

What is going on?

The fragile trust I had for a time is gone. Every day I wonder what and how next. The grocery store? The hair salon or spa? The church or synagogue or mosque or any house of worship? The train, bus, airplane? School?

Twenty eight people, including the shooter and his mother died last week. A young, tormented soul took all these lives. We will probably never know why. That same day twenty people were shot in Chicago. And across the world thousands of women and children are raped and killed each day.

The problem is bigger than we think.

I have no idea what the answer is.

No. That's not true. Part of the answer lies in each of us.

Part of the answer means we take a good hard look at how we live our lives and what we can do differently. Boycott violent television programs and movies? Boycott movies and television programs where the "bad guy" is a person of dark skin and hair - Arabic or black or Mexican or Middle Eastern?  Even the police ones, all of them? Take action to love and care for others. Help to balance the extreme difference between the wealthy and the poor. Work to ensure that all people have access to adequate food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, clean water, and a means to earn a living wage. Gun control, certainly banning semi-automatic weapons can help. Adequate, affordable mental health care can help. But it's more than that.

God shows up in these disasters and tragedies. We might miss that if we aren't looking. God shows up in the coming together of humanity to care for others. (See the New York Times for articles on the "coming together of the community of Newtown...and other related responses to tragedy and disaster).

And so the thing is,  legislation can help. But it's more than that. It's up to us. How we choose to live our lives. We need to live each day with the compassion and care that is manifested after a disaster or tragedy. Why wait?

Let's do it all the time. Let's care for strangers and friends and family alike.  Not just as a response to tragedy, but always.It's a fragile trust we maintain, but one whose bonds can grow stronger if the trust is founded on care and compassion and accountability to ourselves and our neighbor.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

O Come, into this Emmanuel Moment

 A reflection on the readings for Advent 3C: Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

When I was in the fifth grade, and living in Wisconsin, we ended the school year with an over-night camping trip.  I remember a long bus ride through the country to reach the camp site. Over the next two days we sang songs and participated in sports and activities. Back then we didn’t have high ropes courses or team-building activities or rock climbing. Instead I learned how to shoot a bow and arrow and how to load and shoot a rifle. 

On the bus ride home I sat near a girl who caught my attention for she was drawn into herself, not engaging in the playful banter of the rest of us. She was pensive and sat staring out the window. Someone told me that her baby brother had died the summer before. He was a toddler who wandered out of the house and drowned in the swimming pool. I said something in response, I don’t remember what. Something that I thought would be astute but came out as sounding snarky and judgmental. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I was horrified. 

I have no idea if the girl heard me. I don’t remember what I said. But I do remember feeling like I had been cruel and hurtful.

This memory is always with me – whenever a tragedy hits. What do we say? Are there any words at all that can reach into the abyss of chaos, shock, horror, and grief and bring comfort? 

We are all stunned by the news of another mass killing.  What in the world is going on? 

The images on the news repel and mesmerize me at the same time. I recoil. My eyes fill with tears. Life is fragile and precious. 

People are saying that evil has come to Newtown, Connecticut. 

This gives me pause to think. 

There is real evil in this world.  Evil manifests in many ways, and human beings can be evil. 

But I think we need to be mindful of what we define as evil in the world. Behind the evilness of a tragedy that manifests through one person there is often a greater evil at play.

I may be wrong but I think that factors contributing to the violence include: a propensity for violent television programs and movies; we live in a society that fails to provide affordable, quality mental health care; the news blasts us with images of violence that desensitize us and turn tragic situations into spectacles of media frenzy, thus diminishing the real story of human suffering. There is usually some degree of systemic complacency – some way in which appropriate interventions are not enabled in a timely manner. 

And, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:  

We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.  

To all this we add the grandiose idea that one person thinks their suffering can be ameliorated by causing others pain and suffering. The idea that the individual is more important than the community perpetuates poor legislation and extreme behavior in individuals. 

Truth be told, thinking this way, even if it is accurate, just fills me with more despair.  I feel like one of the people in our Gospel reading today, responding to the exhortations of John, wondering, “What then should we do?” 

What in the world is one person to do in response?

It isn’t enough to recognize that the choices I make and how I live my life feed the very system that enables tragedies like this one.  This makes me feel like I am one of the brood of vipers – more of the problem than the solution. 

I am formed and informed from that experience of being an insensitive young girl – I seek a different way of responding to the hurt and brokenness of people. 

What words can I possible say to help? What actions can I take to make a difference?

Perhaps you are wondering the same thing?

Paul in his letter to the Romans wrote, "Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more."  The love of God somehow finds a way to break into the world, mending the broken places.

Nonetheless,  the damage is done - death, pain, sorrow, loss, illness, violence - all leave gaping wounds and scars. Whatever little healing may come, lives will never be the same. 

From Colorado to Wisconsin to Connecticut, this year alone, many families will live each day without a loved one -  lost to a violent tragedy. In Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel, in cities and communities around the world, violence has taken loved ones. Families and friends live with grief and despair and sorrow too deep for words. 

Broken, people will live with memories they want to forget. People live with memories they are afraid of forgetting, for fear that they will forget their loved one altogether. What one remembers and how one remembers informs the way one moves through a grief that never goes away.  A tragedy of this magnitude enhances the guilt and despair and makes it more difficult to determine what one remembers and how one remembers. 

John calls us to repent, to turn and return to God. This means we are to examine our actions and figure out how to live life differently. But again, what does this mean? How are we to do this?

Paul reminds us in the letter to the Philippians, which we heard this morning: “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. …by prayer and supplication …let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Be gentle, trust in God’s presence. 

As William Sloan Coffin remarked following the accidental death of his son, 

"I am sure that the first heart to break was God's."

Today we join with those who are weeping. God’s broken heart embraces our heartbreak.

Maybe silence, 
a deep embrace,
and prayer are the best response we can give in the immediate aftermath. 

Later words might help. 
Later, coffee or tea might help. 
But for now, silence, a hug, and prayer.
We gather to pray with the living active God who cares deeply for all people.  

We gather and pray that the power of God’s grace and love, emanating out from communities like ours, will reverberate in and through the world around us. Prayer unites us, one to another. Where sin abounds, grace prevails and God breaks through. 

God is present in our tears and in our prayers, in our anger and bewilderment, in our impulse to hold our children and grandchild close, in the impulse to hug our parents, friends, and spouses. 

God is present in the fear and the worry, in our loss of words, and in our effort to find words, to somehow respond.  These very feelings are signs that something holy is emerging in and through us. Offering these up to God in prayer further opens us to God’s grace. 

Prayer is a place to begin, where the holy and the sacred overcome evil. 

Let us offer ourselves to God. 
As we sang a moment ago in the sequence hymn:
 O come O come Emmanuel. 
Be with us, O God, in this Emmanuel moment.*  

For God’s presence is a sure and certain promise.
 God was with the dying. God is with the grieving.
 God is with the living. God’s love prevails.*

Let us take a moment in silence and pray.

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will but also those of evil will. And in remembering the suffering they inflicted upon us, honor the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering --- our comradeship, our humility, our compassion, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown out of all this; and when they come to the judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne, be their forgiveness...**
**Anonymous (Found on the body of a woman at Auschwitz.)
from Wil Gafney, at the twitter conversation on 12/14.  

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