Good Fruit, Bad Fruit, Strange Fruit; How can we not lament?

I suppose that the safe thing to do today would be to carry on church as if this week were no different than any other; as if the news were no different or certainly did not pertain to us. Certainly the town of Jasper has been very quiet in regards to the black lives matter campaign. It is as if this topic is just too sensitive, too painful and the risk of opening old wounds is too great. But a wound that is not properly cleansed becomes infected, can become septic. As Presbyterians we believe that we are called to be a prophetic witness in this community. Prophetic means that we speak on behalf of the kingdom of God, that we speak for the oppressed and the disempowered, that we speak for the marginalized and those who suffer under systemic racism and oppression. Still, it is tempting to play it safe, to avoid hot topics but I cannot today. The wounds of oppression and violence are too painful today. The relentless, systematic oppression calls out for cleansing.

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How can I speak about bearing good fruit today when bad fruit and strange fruit are ripening? How can I speak about the good fruit when the bad is rotting and the strange is bleeding? How can I talk about good fruit when otherwise good fruit is becoming bitter with resentment and hopelessness? How can we be good fruit, how can we help others to be good fruit?

 

Some of you have probably harvested fruit as I have. You know what it is, to go out into the orchards with your bags, to climb the ladders and fill those bags with the most tender and delicious of ripe fruit. How some of this fruit would stain your hands and lips before the day was over. You know how the kitchen would be hot as women stirred large pots over the stove and the canning, the jamming, the applesauce making began. Before nightfall there would be a nice, flaky crusted piece of pie with vanilla ice cream, a reward for a good day’s work in the orchard. This is good fruit. The sweetness of a reward earned with a little sweat and labor. At times like those we feel content; life is as it should be and all is right with the world.

 

This is how it is supposed to be. That if you work hard and you do things right good things will come, the harvest will come and it will be good and it will be sweet. But for many among us, this is not true. For many of those around us to work hard and earn good things simply means having to watch others take it.

 

Gary Haugen is a lawyer who became involved in working to end poverty and hunger world wide. He is the founder of the International Justice Mission. In a TED talk given just last month he talks about his moment of insight into the hidden cause of poverty. He was in Africa and doing interviews to help learn about the causes of poverty and hunger and how mission organizations could better address them. One of his interviewees was a woman named Venus, a widowed mother of three, who walked 12 miles that day to sit with him and speak. Imagine that. Walking 12 miles across rough country in order that your voice, your words might matter, that you might give witness to that which eats away at your life and your hope. It must have been a burning desire in her to motivate her to walk that distance just to speak to the wealthy white american who didn’t know, who didn’t get it, who offered to listen. Can you feel that? How much it meant for her to be heard? How important it was to bear witness? As she shared her story of grinding poverty with this man, who is the vision of health and wealth, she shared that her poverty had cost the life of her youngest son. She shared how she had watched as he whithered away, his legs bowing from malnutrition, his eyes growing cloudy and dim, his body growing cold in death, and her inability, her powerlessness, to do anything about it.

 

Suddenly it makes sense doesn’t it? That she would walk a mere 12 miles that others might know, that they might also bear witness, that her son’s all too brief life would be mourned. Her passion, her need to speak out and be heard was a passion fueled by love, that we can all understand can’t we? It tears at our hearts to hear this story and we too want to cry out!

 

So what did she say that caused Gary Haugen, civil rights lawyer, international peace worker, to have this epiphany? She said to him, “After the death of my husband we did all right for a little while, that is until my neighbor Brutus broke into my home and threw us out. Until he stole our home, our land, all that we had, and threw us onto the streets.” She was, after all, a competent capable woman, strong and healthy. She knew how to work hard, how to till the land, how to grow her own food and she did just that and Brutus watched. When the harvest was ripe he came and he reaped it. Venus was left with bitter fruit. Suddenly Gary knew that giving to the poor would do nothing as long as predators waited to steal the hard won harvest of the poor.

 

For those of us who know we can call the police and they will come and they will help us and they will restore to us that which has been stolen we can look to our efforts and say that we will have earned the good fruits of our labor. Yes, we earned this! But for so many this is not the case.

 

It might be easier to see this injustice in foreign countries, to say that it happens over there but surely this sort of thing can’t happen here, right? But it does and how can we not lament? How can we not cry out? When one mother must watch her child whither away, another buries a son who played with a toy gun in the park, when another must bury a son illegally arrested and murdered, when another must bury a son shot during a traffic stop for which there was no valid reason. How can we not lament? Rachel weeps for her children and will not be consoled! How long can we refuse to see?

 

So many of us want to go to denial, to complacency, to victim blaming when this happens. It wasn’t me. We want to cry out. I didn’t do it. But the bad fruit and the strange fruit continue to ripen. My heart is heavy today. It is heavy not just with Freddy Gray but with so many, many others. Too many to name.

 

As much as I fear being overly political I fear being silent so much more. I fear the fruit my silence would bear. If Rachel weeps for her lost children the least I can do, the least we can do, is to weep with her. If Venus cries out for her lost son, if all of Baltimore and Ferguson and so many other places cry out, how can we not be moved? How can we not cry out with them?

 

Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and follow him so we’d better look closely at where he went, what he did. We are called to cry with those who have experienced loss far too soon. We are called to bring healing and hope to those who have none. We are called to mix with the untouchables and the unfit-for-polite-society people and call them brothers and sisters. We are called to provide food for the hungry. We are called to go into the wilderness and face our fears that they will no longer control us. We are not called to blame those who suffer for their own victimization. We are not called to sit in judgment or fix people; we are called to forgive the past and love and love and love. We are called to let our hearts break in compassion for those who suffer and we are called to let that compassion inform our choices and move us to action. This is the way of Jesus. It is not an easy path but it is a good path.

Our text today says, remain in me as I remain in him, remain in my love, if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love. It’s easy to see that as a condition, if you do this then you will receive that, but perhaps it is more descriptive than conditional. Perhaps the need is simply to remain in Jesus’ love, to move, act, and love one another in Jesus’ love. To keep the commandments is to remain in the love of Jesus, it is to abide in him, it is to dwell in that love, to see the world from the position of that love, to move, act, decide from within that love. To let your heart break in compassion from that love. Romans 13:10 tells us that love is the fulfillment of the laws for love does no wrong.

 

If we still don’t get it, Jesus goes on to say, this is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends. Yes, you and you and you, are my friends. Can we look at those we meet on the streets, in the grocery store, in the news and say the same? We bear good fruit only when we abide in love. Abide in anger and resentment, abide in power structures and the fruit will go bad. Abide in our own craftyness and resourcefulness, our desire to say every man for himself and the fruit will go bad. Abide in anything less than love and we will bear bitter fruit. If we are bearing bitter fruit today it is because yesterday we planted in fear and anger, in resentment and self protection. It isn’t fair that we must harvest the bitter fruit that others have planted in their fear and self righteousness, their need for power and security but we cannot afford to plant today’s seeds in the same manner.

 

We must abide in love and we must plant in love. We must not become bitter or lose hope, we must not become angry or withdraw. We are called to love one another, really, truly love one another, no exceptions, no saying, ‘I love everyone but you because you piss me off,” but to love wholy and completely as Jesus taught us. This is the bearing of good fruit, the tangy, bittersweet fruit of compassion and love. This is the good fruit that will change everything. We must refuse to let the ground we grow in become infected with indifference, despair, anger, or fear. We must grow only in the holy ground, the sacred ground that is God’s love for all people. May it be so.

 

 

Secretly, in the dark.

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It’s science class in the third grade, and your teacher hands out these tiny little seeds. She tells you that we are going to grow these seeds in a wet fold of paper towel so we can watch the mysterious actions of a seed opening up and growing. The whole class gets busy wetting and folding their paper towels embedding the seed, usually a bean sprout of some kind, into the folds and slipping them into a glass jar. Over the next few weeks we all watch anxiously. Class only gets started when the teacher is able to pull us away from the window where we go every morning to see if this is the day our seed will open and send it’s roots down, it’s stem up. Some of us are less than careful and our paper towels dry up, the seed dies. Others are too anxious and water over and over and the seed is soaked. Those who strike that happy medium are rewarded when their seed starts to open and a slender white root probes the paper towel looking for dirt and ground. The whole class wants to see and we all crowd around the lucky first one. The mysteries of the earth are exposed, laid bare before us as we stare in amazement. We wonder how it knew to open, how it knew which side was up and which was down. Even as we see what was formerly hidden in the dark of the earth more mysteries beckon.

 

The kingdom is like a mustard seed, Jesus says, from the smallest of beginnings, in the dark of the earth, in the unseen places, it will grow and become a tree! It’s hyperbole, an extravagant and untrue statement. It forces us outside our prior understanding by suggesting something we know can’t be true. Mustard seeds don’t become trees! Acorns become mighty oaks but mustard seeds? They stay pretty small, just your average bush, really. Reason insists that we know our limitations just as the mustard seed isn’t a tree, we know we too have limitations. We are a small church in the middle of a small, mostly rural area. We have our limitations. We are an aging group with declining numbers, we know our limitations. Don’t we?

 

But, Jesus says, in the depths of the soil, in the dark and unseen places, something is happening. The seed is nourished by faith and lovingly tended. Something in it breaks. That resistance and desire to stay safe in its hard shell, the shell that promised it would stay intact until just the right moment, gives in, shatters, is broken open and growth begins. Hafiz, the 15th century Sufi poet wondered,

 

“How did the rose ever open its heart and give to the world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise we all remain too frightened.”

 

Anais Nin might have been responding when she wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

 

It’s easier to see the rose bloom than the seed sprout. The rose is out in the open, warming in the sun. We can watch its petals slowly spread out. The seed, however is hidden, in the depth of the soil and the dark, wet of the earth. Weeks can go by without any visible sign of change, of growth. Before we grew our seeds in wet paper towels we grew grass seeds in a dixie cup filled with dirt. Do you remember that? I suspect that my third grade teacher knew how often we had looked at that bare dirt and failed to believe anything could possibly be growing in there. it’s so hard to believe that change is happening when you can’t see it. As a child I wanted to dig in and see what was happening underneath all that dirt and I didn’t trust that things really were happening. I needed to see it. At the gym where I work out there is a poster in the bathroom, in that most private of places where a woman might look at herself in the mirror and get discouraged because all that hard work and dieting isn’t making the difference she’d hoped for. It says, “When you get discouraged, imagine yourself a year from now, and get back to work.” It’s part of our nature, I guess, that we want to see our hard work and our brave risks produce change now, visibly, let me see it happening! But the process begins within the dark and unseen places.

 

Jesus says the kingdom is like a, that is one, mustard seed, that a man took out into the field and planted. Imagine going out into the field and planting that one singular mustard seed. It’s such an insignificant thing. To plant that one seed. Here we are hungering to see change happening, to see our efforts manifesting, and he says it’s like planting one, tiny, insignificant seed in a field. And then things happen, somewhere in the dark soil this seed opens and grows and becomes, more than we ever could have expected, not a bush but a tree! The smallest thing, perhaps some passing kindness, a smile, a thank you, a gracious welcome, a bit of attention, planted faithfully grows into something incredible, grows into the kingdom! We struggle with the desire to see things happen but silently in all the dark quiet places, what we have planted grows and becomes! Under the surface and out of sight change begins and growth happens!

 

The patience and the hard work, the risks taken, which at the time don’t seem to produce anything, work within us and change us, help us to grow and become the people we most deeply desire to be. Anne Frank, locked up in her attic space, could never have known or imagined how many people her words would touch, what an inspiration she would become in her refusal to hate, in her insistence that love will win and that there is good in humanity. But perhaps she has some inkling of what it might be. She wrote,

 

“Everyone has inside them a piece of good news. The good news is you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”

 

Simple words planted on a sheet of paper left in a cold and bare attic where trauma occurred. Simple words which stir the heart and break open the brittle shell of resistance. We do have a piece of good news. We are good news. We are the seed planted out in the field and we do not know what we might become; we do not know what we can accomplish; we do not know what our potential is! We have only to break through our resistance and stretch our roots down into the soil, that good rich ground that is the Word of God, that is our source and our sustenance and grow!

 

Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” But this letting go, this release of certainty, this cracking of our defensive, protective shell, it’s really hard to do! And when we do, we want promises! Ezekiel 17 speaks to the captives, those who have been stripped of all power and privilege and taken hostage in Babylon, taken hostage to insure the compliance of the rest of Israel. Moments after Ezekiel warns the Israelites not to seek the protection of the even more powerful and just as likely to plunder Egyptians in order to overthrow the Babylonians, he promises them that God will pluck out a fine shoot from their branches and establish it on a high and lofty mountain, and it will put out branches and bear fruit. From the depths of exile and the fate of a hostage, this small cutting, this soon to be grafted on branch will grow to become fruit and refuge to every bird of the air. But the Israelites don’t see this happening. They only see themselves stuck in an abusive hostage situation and maybe, just maybe, the Egyptians would help them out. Maybe they could force the situation and free themselves. Maybe they could take control and make things turn out the way they want it to. Or, Ezekiel says, they could wait for God to act. Or, Ezekiel says, they could have patience with the process of change that is going on under the surface, unseen, in the hidden and dark places, the inaccessible places. Oh but how they wanted to make things happen right now! And don’t we all? It’s so hard to be patient with these slow, internal processes, to trust that things really are happening and growth and change are occurring.

 

We are planted like a tiny seed in a vast field. We begin our growth and our transformation in the dark of the soil, rooted and grounded in God’s Word. We begin our growth in the darkness and in the unseen internal spaces. How often do we want to pluck that seed out of the soil and look at it, just to see if it’s really doing something? How often are we tempted to “push the river” and try to make it go faster? How often do we look towards the powerful and mighty around us and seek to be like them, to emulate them, to adopt their DNA instead of allowing our own to grow and manifest God’s glory just as God intended. Instead we look at those around us and we wish we could be like them. But we are still that small seed. That unseen seed planted in a large and vast field. In our own way and in our own time, God will use us. We will, and are, moving from the isolated self-protected state of a seed to the expansive, spreading, branched out state of a tree, sheltering all manner of life. Isn’t that amazing? The world would tell us to maintain our hard-shell of protection, to care for ourselves and our needs, but God says, no, break open and grow, break open and search for me. It’s a risk, and as Anais Nin acknowledged, it’s something we tend to do only when the pain of staying closed in on ourselves gets to be just too much.

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Can we trust that if we do allow ourselves to break open, to stretch deep inside and deep down into the darkness that we will find sustenance, that we will be nurtured, and that all of this can and will go on for some time, perhaps a long time, before the first shoots of new growth begin to show above the surface? Can we be faithful as we wait for these shoots to show up, to continue watering our little seed and resist the urge to unearth it and check to see if it’s really doing something? Can we have faith that growth and bearing fruit is part of our DNA even when we don’t know where or when that growth may occur? We know what we are, and it is tempting to hold onto that with a tight, white-knuckle grip, but we do now know what we might be, or how God will use us. Learning this requires release, it requires surrender, it requires allowing the process to continue, even when we don’t see signs of success or immediate relief from our anxiety. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed planted in a vast field, and the church is a foretaste of that kingdom. Today we are the mustard seed, planted in the heart of the piney woods in southeast Texas. We grow unseen and undisturbed at first, we grow simply and without concern as God is our gardener, our pruner, our sustenance and our joy. We stretch our roots deep into the soil of the Word and are fed and sustained. We stretch our hearts and our hands to the love of God which warms us and fills us with all manner of good things. We know that it may be a while before new shoots begin to surface, but we are content. We are, after all, just a seed, small and simple, planted in a vast field.

 

 

 

 

 

Good Soil in the Badlands

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When I was growing up I always heard the parable of the sower as a mandate to be good soil and I was never quite sure how to do that. I was pretty sure I didn’t measure up. Sometimes I thought I was the thorny, prickly soil especially when I went through the “touch-me-not” teenage years and sometimes I would see myself as the victim, the one that is trod upon and has every good thing plucked out by voracious birds. I think that was probably a teenage angst too! And there are many times when I have wondered if I were failing in my spiritual practice-not deepening my roots, being too flighty as I move from one project to another, the busyness of life taking control and leading me rather than being intentional and faithful to my commitments. I was pretty sure I was bad soil and I didn’t know how to be “good enough.”

Not that I didn’t try. It seems I was always, and often still am, engaged in one self-improvement project or another. I get anxious and impatient to feel God and the Holy Spirit blooming in my life right now! And I want to be in control.

Turning my life and my will over to God, ceasing these endless self-improvement projects is so hard! The world fills my head with endless commands, be all you can be, lose those last five stubborn pounds, take control, be large and in charge—God has other plans and on some level I suspect we all know this. We are asked to “be still” and stop our ceaseless striving, quiet our anxious heart, to be still and listen to that still small voice which is not in the hurricane of our whirling busy lives, and is not in the restless rushing anxiety that blows through our lives, but is in the receptive stillness of our breaking open, breaking down hearts. And on some level I think we all suspect this.

As I hear this parable again and hear it with new ears it is this breaking down, breaking open that speaks to me. Because I have come to understand badlands and bad soil in a whole new way, because I am a gardener, because I live in the badlands and have found them teeming with life and beauty, because I have worked with youth who are going on their own journey through the darkness and are seeking health, seeking wholeness.

It is this practice of adding all our garbage, the painful, rotten things we wish had never happened, to the dead, inert, bad soil and letting God break it down; of letting God transform what was or is awful, so that our soil begins to teem with new life-slowly at first, in the dark recesses of our souls, but eventually this life, this abundant vitality which begins in darkness ripens and we are fruitful and a blessing to all those around us.

Thich Nhat Hahn has a wonderful way of putting this:

Let us not run away from our garbage; we should learn
the art of making compost. Using that compost we will
grow a lot of flowers. Don’t think that without compost
you can have flowers. That is an illusion. You can have
flowers only with compost. That is the insight of
inter-being — look into the flower and you will see the
compost. If you remove the compost that became the flower,
the flower will disappear also. Whatever you are looking
for, freedom, joy, and stability, you know that suffering
plays a very important role in it. So be aware that we
cannot just run away from our problems. In fact, we
have to go back to our problems. The practice of calming,
of concentrating, of embracing, of looking deeply into the
nature of our pain, is absolutely necessary for us to get
the transformation, the healing that we need so much.”

Thich Nhat Hanh on July 20, 1998.

While I have wanted all my life to be the good it is in the hard and thorny places in my life where I most feel God’s presence. Where, when I let go of my fear and anxiety, when I allow myself to become still it is here that I feel God moving, releasing my stiffness, my resistance and loosening my hard soil, my hard heart; breaking me lose from the wounds of the past, of the present, and showing me that no matter what has been taken from me I have enough; I am enough.

It is in the hard and thorny places where I hear God saying let me have all the rotten and hurtful places, let me tend your wounds, and I will compost it all. I will lift and aerate everything that feels hard and compacted. You will not be simply good soil, you will be rich, composted, turned and fertile soil, if only you will give me the hard places, let go of your resentments and bitterness that things were not, are not as they should be, as you hoped they might be and I will transform it all for you.

We are asked only to come before God as we are , with our heart open and our wounds exposed, to admit we don’t know how to do this, but that God does and our hearts and souls will become Holy Ground, as the Great Healer embraces us, calls us by name, “beloved child of God.” We have never had to do this alone, for God is at work within us, even now, transforming all our hard and thorny places into good soil, rich, abundant, and full of life, may it be so.

A resurrection of our spirits and our hope

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Etty Hillesum

 

It matters because the tomb is empty. This Easter uprising. There are different versions of the story in our scriptures. We have these different versions because it is not meant to be taken literally as if we could go back and video tape it. Something would be lost if we could. The resurrection will not be filmed. It will not be captured or made to fit in tidy boxes. It is something else, outside our paradigms, outside our understanding. It is new life, new hope, new possibilities, and so much more. It is the greening of the springtime and a remembrance that this too will end. It is the eternal call to life, to come out of the tombs, the shadows, the depressions, the lostness, the pain, the grief, come out and live again!

 

It is more than the knowledge that we are never alone. That Jesus has come into all depths, all darkness. That Jesus has gone up the chimneys, down into the mines, into the gas chamber, so that we might make it out. Making it out, simply surviving, is not enough. Such an answer is too small, too simple. We are called to so much more than simply survival. Survival is a task for those who live with pain, loss, degradation, poverty. Resurrection speaks a new word into our survival minds. It is a new way of being that goes way beyond simply surviving to thriving.

 

Being about God’s work is to be about bringing life where there is death, joy where there is sorrow, repair where there is injury, hope where there is despair, it is about bringing resurrection.

 

Resurrection happens. It’s that moment when your heart begins to heal from a massive rejection or loss and you begin to look at the future with hope instead of looking at the past with regret. It’s that moment when familiar patterns of abuse begin to show up in a new relationship and just when you’re tempted to say, “I guess it will always be this way,” something inside you begins to whisper, then shout, then demand, “NO” and things change. It is that moment when lost inside the darkness of depression, when some internal pain has riveted you, has fixed you permanently within its grasp, and some light begins to break in, finds a crack in the hardness, the seemingly impermeable shell, offering a slender chance and something in you grabs hold of it.

 

Our desire for death, for the finality of it, the letting go and the promise that you don’t need to feel anything anymore, is a reality recognized in some psychological theories. Something in us looks back and back and back like Lot’s wife, not wanting to move on, dissolving in despair and loss, weeping inconsolably, and turning bitter. There is a refusal to look to the future, to let go of what was and hope again. But I don’t want to be harsh with Lot’s wife. I suspect that her weeping and her bitterness came from a deep love of her home town, of the people, perhaps her gardens, her home, her friends. If her hometown had been inhospitable to strangers it had still been her home, her town, where she belonged and lived. It was hard to move on. It was hard to let go, to let the past die and keep on living.

 

It was hard for the disciples to witness the death of Jesus. Some couldn’t bear to watch and left. The crushing pain of irredeemable loss was hard to bear. It took time for the disciples to realize that Christ was still with them. That although he had surrendered to the laws of physical reality there was something deeper going on. They began to recognize that in a very real way, nothing could separate them from him, or him from them. That he had become a part of them, that he was and would always be with them, that not even death could come between them.

 

When we reduce the event of Easter to some mythic, magical event, dead man walking, we relieve ourselves of the need to be resurrection people. We turn the responsibility for healing, for loving, for transforming our lives over to God and then we wait for the magic. God asks us to be resurrection people, not passive recipients but to actually be the healing and loving and transforming in the world. We are not to wait passively for some magical event to come, but to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. The belief in a literal magic events leaves us waiting powerlessly, the belief in a poetic miraculous narrative invites us to participate, to be part of the process and to be changed by the process, not passive recipients but participants.

 

This month I have been reading, The Half Has Never Been Told, a story about the formation of the US on the backs and bodies of black men and women. My heart broke and continues to break as I read the vivid descriptions of the death and despair visited on all those people, as I read how they would sing themselves back to life, dare to hope again and again, dare to see themselves as so much more than what their abusers told them they were. That they were truly beloved children of God, holy and sacred people, cherished and loved.

 

It’s the image of men and women picking cotton under brutal conditions but nonetheless singing gently, over and over again, to a young girl, a new arrival in the cotton fields, who’s despair at having been sold away from her family, at being brutalized and having no hope of rescue, threatened to drown her under the hot sun. She was more dead than alive. Yet they sing to her, gently, persistently, calling her to come out of the tomb, day after day, until she too sings, a corpse pulled back to life. “Where are you Liza Jane?” they sang, “come back to us, come home Liza Jane.”

 

This is resurrection. This is new life. The first strangled bits of song to pass her lips, new life, hope, an inescapable freedom, being born again under the unseeing eye of the overseer. And it does not matter if this worldly power shows up as overseer, Roman centurion, ISIS, or SS guard, it is a power that breaks one. It is power over others and it is a power that does not see or recognize the subversive power of love, of Christ and resurrection.

 

Resurrection is not power over but that gentle, persistent thread of hope that refuses to give in to despair. This is not the walking dead resurrection, an insistence that the body still move and act, but a life fully lived, accepting the fullness of mortality and yes this means saying yes to death also. How many of us live a life half there? How many pull back in fear, in despair, in shock, at the horrors of life? Unwilling to say yes, this too, to all that comes, to all that might be, with a life fully lived.

 

Last week Humans of New York, a facebook page that in a truly gracious manner sees and recognizes all the incredible people of New York, featured a man who, after the death of his wife during childbirth, became stuck in the horror and fear that he would lose his daughter too. “I was unable to really be with her,” he said. “Every moment of my time with her I was afraid, afraid that I would lose her too and I missed a lot of moments that way.” That is, until he experienced a resurrection himself, till he moved past fear recognizing that his loss, his fear were keeping him from actually being with his daughter and he began to say “yes this too,” to the whole realm of possibility. Yes I may lose my daughter but right here, right now, I will be with her, and I will not allow my fear and my loss to stop that. Resurrection happens. It comes. We are a resurrection people.

 

If forgiveness releases us from the sting of the past, then resurrection releases us from the sting of the present, the fear of the future. We are released from the destructive power of pain and loss, of degradation and poverty, of isolation and anonymity. If forgiveness releases us from the evils we have done, resurrection releases us from the evils visited upon us through no fault of our own. We are given new hope, new life, that we might be able to continue, to live again. Resurrection looks to the future, to who we might be, to who we are called to be.

 

It is in recognition that some losses are too great to be compensated for that we turn to resurrection. There is no compensation that will make good some losses, only resurrection, only salvation can redeem these losses. God has promised to wipe every tear and we, as resurrection people, hold God to this promise, that all such loss will be redeemed, not compensated for, but redeemed, made good. This is the glory of resurrection, this is what it means to return to life, to live again, to be freed, not only from all that you have done, but from all that has happened to you.

 

Resurrection might also be a trembling, initial attempt to live again. Like Etty Hillesum singing on the train as it bore her to Auschwitz, knowing what was waiting at the end of the line. Surely there must have been tears along with the song. In opposition to all the powers of the world that told her she, and those like her, were nothing, she sang. Surely there must have been trembling now and then, but still Etty sang, still Etty dropped that last notecard from the train car as it pulled out, “We left singing” she wrote. Resurrection happens. But I suspect that it is not always the same. It is not always that bright burst of new life but sometimes a trembling, weak kneed step towards new life. It the insistence on being fully alive even through death and loss.

 

As resurrection people we are not asked to pay in religious dues through our prayers and attendance at church, in hopes of an afterlife reward but to live our lives fully right here, right now, allowing God to bring us back to life, right here, right now! To live as if all that we are and do matters, to live as if death, loss, and pain do not have the last word, because when we live as if it does, then our lives become small and timid, and we are not meant to be small and timid.

 

As a resurrection people we are asked to live fully by taking up our cross, by saying “Yes, this too,” to all the suffering, loss and pain, by singing to the lost souls, “Liza Jane, where are you?” by throwing those bold notes out the sides of the cargo car. We are most fully alive when we live for others, when we love greatly and without fear. When we love until it heals and we don’t stop until it does. We may step toward life with trembling and weak knees but we are called like Lazarus from the tomb to step forward, live more fully, be more alive, do not be afraid, do not withhold your heart. This is resurrection! To be called back to life when hope is impossible! To live anyway, to sing like Liza Jane in the fields or Etty in the cattle car. This is resurrection! To throw off the chains of trauma and pain and loss and live with joy in one’s heart anyway! In the midst of the world with all its difficulties and need, love and live fully, anyway, that we might be true children of the resurrection!

 

We are a resurrection people! Not the small and timid living in fear of loss and trauma but the radical, wild, unpredictable people of God! No wonder the powers of the world fear us. Those who are not afraid, who are known by their joy and their love, love which is not afraid!

 

This is the resurrection of our spirits and our hope. Easter invites us to let go of our fear and celebrate a love stronger than hate, a hope stronger than despair, a light stronger than darkness, a goodness stronger than evil.

 

 

 

 

 

Driven Deeper

diving deeper

Church and our engagement in a spiritual practice hopefully produces change within us. Hopefully it draws us closer to the divine and helps us to understand our calling, our purpose and adds meaning to our life. Often this drawing closer happens through conflict which drives us deeper in our search.

This week the vote on marriage equality passed the required minimum to change the language of the book of order such that marriage is understood to be traditionally between a man and a woman but might also include other partnerships. Each church must now decide for themselves how they will understand marriage. No longer can we simply point to the book of order for clarity. We must each now do our own  search, come to understand the six verses in Scripture which speak about same-sex relationships and discern God’s will. There are many who are joyful at this news and many who are fearful and who mourn the loss of what they perceived as clear consensus.

It would be so much easier if we had a literal and inerrant text but no such text exists. We are driven deeper into conversation with God and the Holy Spirit through the process of discernment. Scripture is the story of that conversation. When we are driven through the lack of simple, facile answers into a deeper, more humble conversation with God we follow in the tradition of those who have gone before. We are invited to struggle with God and argue with God, to rejoice with God and become intimate with God. We are all called to be in conversation with God; to bring our whole complex selves to this conversation, our fears, our joys, our hopes, our concerns.

We are called not only to be in conversation with the Holy Spirit but with one another. We must listen deeply to one another that we might deepen our relationships and understanding of what it means to be in community with one another. We must hear one another’s stories that we might be moved to compassion and the love of our neighbor as Christ commanded us.

This conversation must not be an isolated conversation. We are called to discern in all manners of things where God is leading us. Our resistance to doing this work and being open to the mystery of journeying with God can show up as a longing for the glory of past days, it can show up as a scapegoating of a particular issue, e.g. “if it weren’t for our position on x,y, or z, people would fill the pews!”  it can show up simply as denial. It can show up as waiting for someone else to do the work in the hope that they will let us know when it’s safe to come back into the conversation. God calls us to be engaged in the conversation! We are called to show up with all our fears and doubts, all our questions and passions. We are called to dive deeper into conversation with God and one another, to struggle humbly and honestly.

We are called to be a people of hope, joy, and love which suggests we must reject fear and resistance. We are called to discern, each and every one of us as well as together as a church, where God is leading us that we might follow in faith. We must be willing to mourn the beautiful dreams that we have discovered will not be fulfilled that we might dream new dreams, inspired, holy dreams. We must let go of our expectations and all of our ‘should’s,” and “must’s,” so that we can hear and see where God is leading us.

Our certainty has been pulled from us. We are driven deeper, into a meaningful conversation with one another and with God. Let there be no easy, facile answers, but instead a deep and intense conversation, an intimate and life-changing relationship! Let us commit to hearing one another fully and to learning, each and every one of us, how deep and wide, how bottomless and beyond understanding, is God’s love.

Cyndi

Bearing the Light

Light bearers

“May Light always surround you;
Hope kindle and rebound you.
May your Hurts turn to healing; Your Heart embrace Feeling.
May wounds become Wisdom;
Every Kindness a Prism.
May laughter infect you;
Your Passion resurrect you.
May Goodness inspire
Your Deepest Desires.
Through all that you Reach for,
May your arms Never Tire.
~ D. Simone

be-the-light

We are the light bearers, the evangelicals, which literally means those who bring a good word, a word of hope, a word of healing. And there is so much need for light bearing, for the good word, the word of hope today.

John 1 tells us that just over 2000 years ago a light came into the world; a light that would change everything, a light that came into darkness. This Lenten season we have been talking about our own darkness, our own desert journeys. There is plenty of darkness, plenty of wilderness and shadows to explore, to get to know. It’s important to know our own shadow side because then we can take responsibility for it, we know it when we see it and we won’t find ourselves pretending that it belongs to someone else. Holding our own weakness tenderly we can also be gentle with others. We can remember not to judge lest we be judged, we can refrain from throwing the first stone.

This week I heard Toni Morrison in an interview talking about racism. “it’s insanity,” she said, “it’s the need to see someone else on their knees so that you can feel OK.” It’s not black people who have work to do on racism but all who are racist. The reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement says a lot more about those reacting than it does the protestors. Do we really want to say that Black lives don’t matter? We must look carefully at our own shadow, our own darkness if we are to be sure that we are dealing with it, that we aren’t pretending that our darkness is really only a reaction to what others have done, is really justified. Our darkness, our shadow side, properly cared for and transformed by the Holy Spirit becomes fertile ground. It becomes that place where we have empathy for others because we know how hard this work is. We know what resistance looks like.

We know the resistance because we can and we do overcome it! We know it because it is that urge to not do anything, to let someone else take care of it. We know it because we want to deny and defend and justify why we acted or didn’t act. We know it because we can bring the light of Christ to it and watch it change. This transformation is that glorious moment when you realize you can and you do make a difference, sometimes just with a smile, with recognition, a way of saying to others, I see you and I care. Seeing others truly we bring the light of Christ to them. “Beloved child of God, you are treasured, you are loved eternally and no one and nothing can ever take that away.” And the shadows lift, they dissolve.

We can see our shadow side leaking out when we see our nation mourning the brutal death of Kayla Mueller; who looking like everyone’s next door neighbor, was killed by ISIS and how quickly this was followed in North Carolina by the murder of three innocent Muslim students, who looked like “others” and the burning of a mosque in Houston. This is our shadow, come back to haunt us. It is out there when we hear news commentators crying out for the murder of all Muslims and there is no accountability for the American participation in the creation of ISIS. This is shadow work at its deepest and darkest. It’s hard to look at and if we really consider it, let it sink in, it can make us feel sickened and hopeless.

It is into this we must bring the light of Christ.

Bring the light of Christ into our anger and pain.

Our resistance to dealing with our darkness shows up when we hear people deride Obama for saying that Christians have committed atrocities too and we need to be careful how we judge others. We have quickly forgotten the Christian militias that terrorized thousands in Central Africa just two years ago, where more than 6000 were left dead in an ethnic cleansing, or the Christian justification of slavery that happened right here. Not us, we want to say, we would never, all the while students are shot and mosques are burned. It’s so much easier to see the wrongs, to see the shadow in others. Not us, we protest, we couldn’t do that.

Bring the light of Christ into our sorrow.

We feel our resistance in the silence and the turned gaze when we don’t want to see our neighbors in poverty or pain. When we want to walk by and not see, not know. As if to know would implicate us, would drag us into their situation and it feels too big, too scary.

Bring the light of Christ into our fear.

It is into this darkness, the darkness where might makes right and the powers that be can be as vicious and brutal as any we have heard of, it is into this darkness that a light has come.

Light of Christ come into our most hopeless situations.

A light that cannot be overpowered. This light that cannot be overcome, it cannot be eaten up or digested by the darkness. It sticks in the craw of the darkness and no one and nothing can swallow it up. This light changes everything.

This light which will not go away illuminates our very being and we are seen, truly seen and perhaps there is a piece of us that fears this, that says “if you really saw me, truly knew who and what I am, you would not like me.” It takes courage to stand in the light and be truly, wholly seen. All our mistakes and shadows visible. We are human, faulty and frail. We are human, bearers of the image of God, created good, so very good, and faulty and frail. Both are true. The light of Christ transforms our darkness, our human soil into the richest of compost, into the fertile ground of compassion and abiding love.

Pain that isn’t transformed, is transmitted and so we mourn with those who’s pain continues to live in them, who’s pain continues to isolate and distance them, those who are afraid to stand in the light of Christ because they are so sure that no one could ever truly love them, not after all they’ve done and been. We mourn with those who cannot bear to look at their own shadow, their own darkness for fear that it will all be true and it’s too big, and it’s too scary.

We bring the light of Christ to those who are lost in the darkness when we tenderly hold a safe space and invite those who fear, who rage, who hurt to dare to show up wholly and completely. We bring the light of Christ when we look past the painful behaviors and say I still see you, I still see you, child of God and God still sees you. You are treasured, you are loved, you are forgiven, you are made whole.

We bring the light of Christ when we love ourselves wholly and completely, all our faults and mistakes, and we honor our faults because they keep us human and keep us reachable. Can we say to ourselves, I see you child of God and God sees you; you are treasured, you are loved, you are forgiven.

We mourn and cry out against the darkness, the lostness, the injury and pain, but we don’t leave it there. We are called upon to bear the light of Christ into that darkness, into all the pain and lostness. We are called to show up fully, frail human, beloved child of God, and be with those who suffer. We are called not to judge but to be with, not to correct or fix but to love.

Mourn then and cry out, and rage against the darkness, but don’t leave it there. Go forth as the light bearers, as the image bearers, as the messenger of God and speak a word of hope, of truth, of light into the darkness.

Look deep into the darkness, because we might find part of ourselves there, some piece long forgotten, because we might find our sisters and brother there, and love deeply, love knowing that the darkness is the first wrap we put on our wounds, tucking them away when they are too painful for us to bear, to hold gently, tucking them away with the promise that we will release them soon, as soon as we can breathe through it and know we’ll survive. Love gently and deeply because sometimes, when we have covered a wound it is just to easy to let it stay covered and to refuse to heal. Love deeply because this is what it means to bring the light of Christ into the darkness; not a harsh, glaring, exposing light, but a soft, tender, loving light, a light which heals.

Love deeply because, as the poet Hafiz said hundreds of years ago, speaking to this eternal truth:

The heart is right to cry

Even when the smallest drop of light

Of love

Is taken away.

Perhaps you may kick, moan, scream

In a dignified

Silence,

But you are so right

To do so in any fashion

Until God returns

To

You.

And so yes, kick, moan and scream if you need to but don’t ever give up. Know that God is with you. And when you can’t feel God’s presence it is right to mourn, to cry.

Go into the darkness, because you bear the light of Christ with you, because you are the evangelist, because you bear the image of God in your very being. Go into the darkness because you are loved, you are treasured, you are never forgotten but loved eternally and no one and nothing can ever take that away. You bear the light of Christ within you, never forget that.

Desert Wanderings

Harry Randall Truman was a faithful and devoted man. He was the caretaker of a mountain lodge near Spirit lake and he loved, he truly loved the wilderness. The mountain with its depth and mystery, the lake with a cold, damp fog rising off of it in the early mornings. I imagine Harry in his devotion, his heart swelling and over-flowing with love, standing on the deck of the lodge in the early morning, coffee cup in hand, drinking in the almost silence, that golden silence when the world speaks as one with God before our busy schedules and to-do lists take over. I never met Harry, so I can only imagine, but I imagine Harry as one of those many people from the Pacific Northwest who proudly proclaim, the mountain is my temple, the forest is my sanctuary, I meet God there. I have no need for steeples or organ music, I have tall pine trees and birdsong.

spirit lake

When the call came to leave the mountain, Harry refused. “My mountain won’t hurt me,” he proclaimed and as he witnessed to his deep faith and love of the wild lands, the forests, his beloved mountain, people were inspired. He received marriage proposals in the mail. People took heart listening to him and they too refused to leave the mountain, at least until the evidence was more certain.

Harry said the mountain would take care of him and I suppose in a way it did. When Mount St. Helens erupted it folded it’s hot, molten lava around Harry and his cats and it held him eternally. He did not have to witness the devastation of his forests, of his lake, of his mountain; he was spared that. There is a certain grace and certainly there is fidelity in Harry’s story.

There is also a refusal. A refusal to enter into exile and endure the desert times, the I feel so lost times, the time of loss and grief. I can’t imagine Harry’s situation. But I do know that in some ways it is our situation. Most of us were raised in a certain church, a certain way of being church.

I have the fondest memories of Wednesday night potlucks and to me a church isn’t home unless I can enter the sacred places alone and walk through them as if I’m home. This naming and claiming for me as a child involved signing up to clean sections of the church and joyfully doing so every week, this quarter we have the kitchen and the narthex, next one we have the bathrooms and the adult Sunday school room, and so it would go. It was ours. We were home.

It involved sitting vigil at the foot of the cross from Good Friday service until Easter morning when the pastor arrived to do the Easter service- we would sign up for 15 minute increments and in complete silence we would enter and relieve those who had come before us and we committed to never leaving that cross alone in the horror of death until resurrection came. My mother loved to sign up for the middle of the night sessions so this vigil often began with her waking us at one or two in the morning and driving through the cold to church. All of this is viscerally encoded in my being.

This is how I know my church…except that, it changed. My church became the one where I was greeted with a hug and a soulful, “I see you” gaze. My church became the one where, and I know this is different, we did prayer stations and at a designated time during the service I could move from one prayer station to another, physically praying as I lay my body down on pillows, artfully praying as I painted a “graffiti wall” with my earnest prayer, or simply lighting a candle, and then, most significantly for me, receiving communion by name. I was known here, I was claimed here. As I moved through the service I would receive small pats on my shoulder, a brief smile here and there. Somehow I was known and loved and accepted and I felt it viscerally.

My church was also a small church where my service began in the early hours of Saturday morning as my fellow seminarians slept in and I, I was off to buy groceries. Though, no, to be honest my worship and expressing my love for this congregation began earlier in the week, often on pinterest an internet site with lots of delicious recipes that I would peruse, trying to find and create the perfect menu. And after coffee I would run to the store, shop for wonderful, fresh goodness and spend the day in the basement of the church, again alone, working, cleaning, cooking, feeling myself at home in deep visceral ways, in the way of thanksgiving smells, and canning or jamming sessions with extended family, home is where the kitchen is, and with my radio on full blast I would dance and sing and cook, so that I might present a full meal to all these wonderful, loving, gracious people who took me in when no one else would.

My church became the message that you are welcome here; all your tears and anger and frustration, all of you, all that you are and all that you experience yourself to be, are welcome here. I’m paraphrasing, because to be honest this message was one I received in pieces, a little here, a little there. But again, I knew I had found my church. The final piece of the message, you have worth and value, you have something to contribute, and by the way, God sees you, God loves you. Huh, nothing more. No earn it. No if you do this…God will love you. No, if you do this…I will accept you. No if you are this you can be part of our community. No. No. Isn’t that something? You! Sitting there. You! Are loved! That final piece, once I was ready to let it in, to receive it, it made the whole world church!

So about now you might be wondering what all this has to do with Harry Randal Truman and his love of his mountain. Right about now I can imagine Harry twirling in his grave saying, how can you conflate my love for my mountain with church?! But I am sure that he would admit that standing on his deck in the morning, watching the mist rise off the lake, feeling and hearing the Spirit of God pulsing through the wilderness, singing with the birds, that this was church for him.

And I understand his refusal to leave church as he understood it, even if it meant death. Because I refused to leave church until it meant death, the death of who I was as a fully aware and adult woman, until it meant that I must become small and diminished. But I know something that Harry never had the chance to discover, that church comes in many and different forms. Some of them feel odd and different and off-setting, especially at first, but all of them are wonderous and grace inspired and beautiful. And Harry was not able to receive this.

My sister-in-law and my brother live on the Oregon coast and every week my sister-in-law posts pictures she has taken of the Oregon coast on facebook and it is devotional. I know, some of you are thinking, “how can anything on facebook be devotional” but it is. Her pictures speak of a deep love, a willingness to stand in awe and wonder, of a willingness to accept grace and love without explanaition. “Why are you doing this for me?” and no answer comes, and we wonder openly about the love or perhaps the silence, but we accept the gift. We accept it in wonder and awe!

So what is church anyway? Is it the grand and vibrant mountain, holy mountain, on which my ancestors worshipped? Is it the edifice of a cross that must be accompanied, that invites us into the death of Jesus Christ? Is it the kitchens and bible study rooms that must be cleaned and thus owned? Is it the liturgies that invite us into personal and public prayer? And when all around us are saying, in large and quiet voices, this will end, do we have the courage and the faith to believe that the church can and will exist in lots and lots of different and unexpected forms?

I wonder sometimes, if Harry had left his beloved mountain, his humble mountain, would he have learned to worship the grand and incredible mystery that is God on the beach as my sister-in-law does? I wonder if he would have named it and claimed it, saying here, today, I worship and adore, straight up adoration, the mystery that is God manifested yesterday in Mount St. Helens but today in Castle Rock, tomorrow who knows?

We have this resurrection faith. This faith that God will come even through, perhaps especially through, death. We die to what we know, the ways in which we have always experienced God, believing that God will become present to us in new and different ways, in unexpected ways. We die to what we know, perhaps because we need so desperately to believe, to know, that God will be present to us even when we have let go of all that is certain.

And in doing so we enter the desert. Halle, hallejuha, we enter the desert. Imagine Jesus, that human side of him, being so blessed at the river that the heavens split open and God said, I am so very, very proud of you. I don’t know about you, but if the heaven’s split at the river, in the midst of baptism. I would be dunking under that river over and over trying to hear it again. But Jesus leaves.

Harry could not leave the place where he experienced the divine. H would not be driven out to the desert, but Jesus, he leaves.

We stand at just such a cusp. There are so many, many memories of God-filled, God-inspired moments here. We have so many memories of worship being a certain way and like Harry our love of what we know, the ways in which we have experienced God, call to us. And we want to remain faithful to that just as he did. And like Harry we know that this cannot last. We feel the trembling of the mountain, the dissolving of finances, the empty pews. We know we cannot stay but like Harry we want to stay and continue to feel the blessed and gracious presence of God in the ways which we are familiar with.

Following Jesus out into the desert isn’t easy. Walking into the silence and the loneliness, encountering our darkest side, encountering our mortality is frightening. Jesus received this incredible blessing, sky splitting open, God speaking directly to him, and in response he leaves. In response he opens himself up to the mystery and the uncertainty. In response he walks into the darkness, into the desolation and he experiences temptation. It is a walk of faith, to walk into the darkness.

We are entering Lent, a time when we are invited to die with Christ and learn that we truly have a resurrection faith, that dying we live. We are invited into our greatest fears that we might learn that God is there too.

As we stand together on the edge of the desert, as we face our mortality we have a decision to make, to enter the unknown and let go of certainty or to die where we stand, remaining faithful to what we already know. I believe that Harry was not alone when the mountain erupted, that God was with him even then, loving him, protecting him, caring for him. I do not believe that if we decide not to embrace change that God will abandon us or be disappointed in us, but I do believe that this church will not survive it; we cannot keep doing what we have been doing and expect to get different results. This is a valid choice but it is not the only one.

We can choose to follow Jesus into the desert, into the unknown, embrace change and let the Spirit transform us. We can open our hearts and souls up to the incredible process of transformation and say, yes this too. We can walk into the darkness, encounter our mortality, grief, and loss knowing that we do not walk alone, that God is holding our hand as we go.

We stand on the cusp decision just as Harry must have as he watched his neighbors pack up and leave.

Please pray with me, Most holy and gracious God, teach us not to judge one another as we struggle to know what the right thing is. Teach us to be kind and to respect the decisions that we each must face. Teach us to seek You always knowing that whether we can face the desert and transformation or whether we stay resolutely where we have experienced You once before that You are with us. Amen