A Pentecost Reflection

pentecost

 

A professor walks into the classroom and holds up a book. “This book is red,” he announces. There is a moment of confusion and then someone corrects him, “Prof, the book is blue.” A moment of hesitation as the professor looks directly at him. “No, it’s red,” and the classroom erupts. The discussion becomes more strident as people begin to suggest that the professor is messing with them, doesn’t respect them, is crazy, is blind, but each time someone ends with the statement that everyone can see the book is blue, the professor repeats his claim. Before the class is entirely out of order he turns the book around. The side facing him was, in fact, red.

 

It’s interesting how ardent we can become defending our understanding of the world against claims that do not support our understanding. When others see the world differently than we do it throws our worldview into doubt, it’s confusing, it’s disturbing. A high school psychology class is divided in half, right down this row, half are told to put their heads down while the other half view a picture of a pretty young woman with a fancy hat, they then put their heads down and the other half of the class is shown a picture of a large nosed old woman. The entire class is then shown a composite of the two and again, the class erupts and tempers begin to flare as each side defends their own view of this composite, until the teacher shows them how he prejudiced their view, limited their view, to one interpretation.

 

We do this all the time. It’s a trick of the human brain, it’s a part of our nature that we attempt to create meaning and once we have identified it, we defend it. The meaning we have created becomes the foundation of our way of life. We assign meanings to clothing, hair,make up or lack thereof. We assign meaning to income, poverty, education, career, or lack thereof. We assign meaning to language, ethnicity, country of orgin, race, and political affiliation. And once we have determined that we have found the right one, we defend it, and we shake our heads in confusion when someone implies we have it all wrong.

 

The disciples and followers of Jesus gathered in that upstairs room, closeted, cloistered, locked in. Suffering the heat of the day in tight quarters and closed windows. They had experienced something different, something unexpected in the person of Jesus Christ and they knew that this different view didn’t quite fit in with the dominant world view. They knew that to be identified as the ones suggesting we, the religious people, have it all wrong, is dangerous.

 

We, as a church, gathered once as the session and came out of that room wanting to say that the dominant world view that we are too small to make a difference, that people ‘naturally’ segregate, that the races cannot get along, that all of this is wrong. We as a church came out of that room saying we have been called to announce a different paradigm, that race is a social construct which can and will be transcended, that minority communities are more like us than they are different, that we can transcend our differences and love one another, that we can speak the same language of love, connection, and community.

 

The disciples had seen Jesus come to them, through all their defenses and their attempts to shut the world out; through their fear and locked up hearts, Jesus came; through their doubts and misunderstandings, Jesus came. And still, we find them again, locked up, shut up inside this closed dark room, fear dripping off the walls like sweat.

 

You can almost imagine them saying, “What about the religious right? What about all those pharisees who will stone us to death, call us apostate?” You can almost imagine them saying, “We will be charged with treason, with abandoning the way of our forefathers!”

 

Are we any different? I wasn’t at that session meeting but I can imagine some of you might have said, “But what about the hate groups, what about those conservative elements in town who like the status quo?”

 

I can imagine the disciples saying, “But we don’t know how to do this, we don’t know what it’s supposed to look like, we don’t know exactly where we are going or how we will get there.” But then, the original disciples didn’t know either.

 

When we look back with perfect hindsight we can imagine the disciples understanding the Matthews 28 verse, go and make disciples of all the world, to be about the formation of the church. Go and make Christians, is generally how we hear this verse. Except, except there was no christianity, there was no christian faith at all. There was no church to which to bring people. There was only a small group of Jesus followers locked away in an upper room, sweltering away in the heat and unsure what to do or how to do it. I’ve heard it said that a better translation of Matthew 28 is not go and make disciples, but go and love all the people in the world as I have loved you. Go to all the corners of the earth, to all the strange and different people with their strange and different ways of being, and love them, just love them.

 

Except that this act of loving all the people as Jesus has loved us, changes everything. It implies that our traditions are not really all that important, that love is more important. It implies that our hierarchies are unhealthy, that anything that impedes or blocks the flow of love and healthy connection is unhealthy. It breaks through all the boundaries that help us to feel safe and to know our place in the world. Suddenly we are called into deep relationship with lots of different people, unexpected people.

 

Poor Lydia, who had a good station in life, who was respected and wealthy, who was quite, quite comfortable and enjoyed a certain station in life, found that Christ’s love for her brought her into the company of the most disreputable people. Her social standing and comfort crushed and irretrievably lost. Poor Phillip, who had been taught all his life that a man who had been castrated could never come before God, was not fit to do so, found himself running alongside an ethiopian eunuch’s chariot talking to him about God. It was so inappropriate! And God isn’t done yet disturbing our understanding of what is and isn’t right.

 

Peter meditates and prays on the roof and God says, “take and eat, all of these defiling creatures.” What? Take and eat snakes and pigs, and nasty seafood? Be defiled? Oh, and by the way, go and talk to that Roman guy, Cornelius. It was so, so inappropriate! What more treasonous or unpatriotic act could a Jew commit? Peter himself says, ““You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile;” But he did it anyway!

 

Are we any different? Wiser heads say to us, “You’re going to what? Work on race relations in Jasper?” but we’re going to do it anyway. More cautious people suggest we lay low and just quietly go about our lives. It’s not our problem. We don’t need to fix it. But God says go anyway.

 

The disciples saw Jesus break through barriers they themselves had set up; they saw him come to them and throw all that they thought they knew into disarray. This is not something most of us want. We love to read about challenging times, we love to watch movies about people taking risks, we love to admire activists from afar, but we don’t like to be them. We don’t like being called to take a stand. We don’t like feeling as if our backs are against the wall and we can’t do otherwise.

 

So it might make sense to us that they were hiding. I mean who wanted to go out and challenge the status quo? Who wanted to speak love to violence, poverty and hate? Who wanted to let go of centuries of tradition and boundaries that helped one know exactly where they fit in and who they were? Who wanted to cross those boundaries and wonder if you’ve just been defiled? So they hid. And so do we.

 

We hide from the necessity of action. We hide from the need to speak love to violence. We hide because we don’t feel safe and we want more time to prepare, to get things right, to be certain. If the disciples who walked the earth with Jesus for three years, personally witnessing miracles and life pulled out of death were afraid, maybe it’s OK that we are too. Maybe it’s OK to admit that sometimes this call, this mission feels too big, too uncertain, too risky. And maybe it’s OK to admit that we want some certainty, we want some assurances, that we are on the right track, that we will make it, that we won’t look back later and feel like we got it all wrong.

 

But God’s not done with us yet. Here they all were, hiding in that upper room, locked into with the stifling heat and the fear. But God didn’t leave them there. That holy, crazy, wild Spirit of God moved among them, lit them on fire with passion, with creativity, with daring do, and sent them forth into the street. Oh man! We’d better be careful what we pray for! The barriers that had divided them were shattered. The fear that had kept them safe dissolved like it had never been there. Filled with the Holy Spirit they were loosed on the world! And nothing has been the same since.

 

God did not promise to keep them safe. He did not promise them pretty church buildings with stain glass. He did not tell them they would have no doubts. God did not even tell them how to do what they were called to do. Most of our new testament texts are letters written in response to conflicts and disputes. God never said it would be easy but God called them anyway. God filled them with the Holy Spirit which broke down all the barriers and resistance within them that they might be able to speak love, and be love and teach love, again and again, and again.

 

And we might pray today to be emboldened by the Holy Spirit, to be filled with love and compassion for our neighbors, to be sent out from this building to the people who are God’s beloved children, sent to them that we might love them and stand with them in times of trouble. But this is not about safety, and it is not about having the answers or knowing exactly how to do this, it is only about the necessity of going forth, it is only about the love that God has given us and the need to share that love.

 

If we go where God is sending us and we love and commit as God has put upon our hearts we will be known in this community and in the broader world as that crazy, mixed up, way out there church, the one which threatens power structures and the status quo, the one which loves unconditionally and breaks down barriers and crosses boundaries, and we won’t be safe. But we will be about God’s business.

 

Do not be afraid, God has said to us, do no, do not, do not be afraid, for I am with you always, unto the ends of the earth.

 

I imagine it happened this way, the people were gathered in the upstairs room, filled with fear and trepidation, uncertain and wary. One of them started to pray, just give us our bread for today Lord, just fill us with your spirit that we might be, in all ways, your people” and as this one person prayed others began to join in and God heard their cry and God responded. We do not have a god who would force his will upon us, but when we are ready to move outside of our cloistered spaces, when we are ready to take a risk, to admit we need God’s help, when we can let go of our fear, God is waiting, just waiting, to rush in and hold us, uplift us and fill our hearts. God is waiting for us, as a loving parent waits on a child’s first steps, knowing that when we can let go of our fear, we won’t only be walking freely, we will be running, skipping, jumping, and dancing with joy. It is our birthright as children of God and God is waiting with bated breath, eager to celebrate with us, our first few timid steps into a new life, a new beginning, a bigger and broader world than we ever could have expected.

 

 

 

Falling Gently into God

John 12:24  Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

fields of wheat

What does it mean to let yourself die that seeds of new growth might flourish? If a seed does not fall to the ground, it’s an ominous thing to hear one say. The easiest and least threatening response is that this is Jesus talking about his approaching death and this makes it not about us which is a relief! I mean what if Jesus were inviting us to die? And did he mean this literally? It’s the same sort of response he gave Nicodemus, One must be born from above, but how, Nicodemus wondered, does one do that? What does it mean that anyone who loves his life will lose it? It appears that Jesus was talking about more than his approaching death, he was talking about us. And if being born again from above gives us pause, surely dying that we might yield a rich harvest is certainly pause-worthy.

 

It’s pause-worthy because we have been taught to grasp, to achieve, to accumulate. It’s pause-worthy because we have learned to identify ourselves with what we have done, what we have, by our careers and all of this is not something from which we come but is something which we create, leaving us in control. What does it say of us that we seek less to express the dna of our creator than that we seek to create ourselves according to what we have learned is the best, most appropriate, most desirable? Jesus gently mocked our striving saying, do not be anxious nor strident in your seeking to provide. Look at the birds, they do not sow nor reap nor gather into barns but the father provides for them, look at the lilies of the field, they do not toil nor spin but look how your father has clothed them. Do not be anxious, do not strive for your own success, let all of that die in you, do not be afraid, do not be anxious. It is God who will provide.

 

Dying to our own striving and self-protecting, self-producing ways is to fall gently into the hands of God. It is to let go, finally, of all our striving. It is to lay back upon the waters, gently releasing our earnest efforts to hold our heads above the waters, and allow the waters to carry us, to bear us up, to cradle us gently.

 

Dying to our own striving is to release our tight grip on the seams that appear to hold us together, noticing that something within us is struggling to be born, is struggling to blossom and it can only do so by ripping apart the seams of our carefully ordered world. It is to breathe that deep fresh breath of new life that tells us we will no longer be constricted and made small by our tidy efforts to control life, no, instead we breathe deeply of the spirit, the wild, holy wind which blows where it will and which will carry us with it, if we can release our tight grip, if we can dare to come apart at the seams and allow all the seeds within us to burst forth like dandelion seeds before the breath of a child. If we can allow our hearts to be torn asunder by compassion and love and weep the tears of bitter loss and even more joyful laughter.

 

So it’s easier and safer to believe that Jesus was only speaking about himself, falling to the ground that a rich harvest would ensue. And this easier and safer keeps our lives very small and stifles that impudent, unrealistic, blossoming, burgeoning thing which threatens to rip the seams of propriety apart and we can all breathe a sigh of relief, except…

 

except that it keeps our lives very small and very safe and something within us dies and we know that and it hurts so we become very tightly laced and proper because that thing that wants to live inside of us cries out to be born and to live this wild crazy life where we burn as bright and beautiful as the lilies of the field and sing like birds but it seems too impossible for us and we don’t dare listen. Because if we listen, if we hear these cries of the Spirit, then we must die to all our striving, controlling, perfecting, and we don’t know how to do that.

 

We do ourselves no favors if we say that it is easy or that it is not frightening. Jesus goes on to say, my soul is troubled, but what should I say? Father save me from this? This is why I came, that the Father might be glorified in me. So we ought not be ashamed of being afraid, or struggling to release our tight grip on what we know, but we have been called to something more, something more beautiful and mysterious, more gracious and more loving, than anything we could do on our own.

 

It is the stepping into an impossible mission of reconciliation even when we don’t know exactly how it will work. It is the leaving of friends and family and the only way of life you’ve ever known to go where you are called. It is the tender vulnerability of saying out loud that God has touched you and changed your life and you know it sounds weird but you’ve got to say it anyway. It is the refusal to stop loving, even after pain and loss. It is the saying of “Yes, this too,” to all that life has to offer. It is the promise to show up fully, heart, soul, and body and the promise you won’t leave when things get scary. It is the stepping into the unknown, knowing only that God is with you, when you truly don’t know anything else and even that you take on faith. It is all of this and more.

 

It is releasing our tight grip on the life we thought we ought to have, that we should have had, in order that something new might be born in us. That something new might live through us and claim us for that higher good, that higher meaning; that some ineffable mystery of the Spirit would light up inside of us, burn brightly within us and we would have new life.

 

If the grain of wheat, which is only a single grain, should fall to the ground, it yields a rich harvest. Let us be fall gently into the ground that is God, that is God’s way and God’s path, and God’s love, releasing our anxious striving, that we may be a rich harvest which gives joy to God. amen

 

 

Abiding in the Shelter of Love; a mother’s day reflection

10251951_10203635782965287_5407471770477621309_n

I am because we are. No where is that more apparent than in the relationship of a parent and a child. I am, because, we are. No where is that more true than in our relationship with God. We are relational creatures, formed out of relationship for relationship and no relationship changes us, forms us quite as much as that of a mother and child. We all need mothering and sometimes we have to look outside the bonds of family in order to find that mothering but it is part of who we are that we are all capable of mothering and, on some level, we all seek out and benefit from mothering. While the awareness of the mothering God has diminished in our tradition the prophets were fond of referring to God as the mother of Israel, how can a mother forget her own child? they asked, implying that God’s love is just like that of a mother. Jesus compared himself to a mother hen when he looked down on Jerusalem and said, how I have wanted to gather you to me like a mother hen gathers her chicks. Created in the image of God does not imply that God walks on two legs, or is gendered, or has to come the tangles out of her hair in the morning, but that our hearts and souls are created to be in these holy, sacred, nuturing relationships with one another.

 

We abide in the shelter of one another. Created in the image of God we are created to be in relationship. We are created in the image of the perichoretic God and how I really want all of you to know that word! Perichoresis is about a dance, it’s about a dance with God, it’s about God dancing with the whole of creation, drawing everything to her as she dances this incredible dance of creation, of new life, of resurrection, of a love that surpasses all understanding, of deep and abiding relationship! We have this incredibly beautiful image of God as the one who dances within God’s very self, the three aspects of the trinity, Mother, Child, Spirit, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, dancing together, this image of God as the one who draws all of us into the dance with divine mystery, all of creation trailing along as she dips and swirls bringing life and joy and love in her wake.

 

We abide in the dance of the perichoretic God, a God who is not one but three, a God who delights in us and in the whole of his creation! We abide in the shelter of one another as we learn to engage in the dance. We abide in the shelter of one another as we celebrate the good fruits, the laughter, the joy, the love, the creativity, the mystery of one another. We abide in community as we struggle with our expectations, our shoulds and should nots. We abide in love for one another as we encourage and contend honestly with one another. As we learn to dance with one another keeping that appropriate space between us, not stepping on toes, learning to follow a lead. We were never meant to be alone! Created in the image of a God who is, in and of God’s very self, relational we were created for relationship.

 

We are most ourselves when we are true to the vine that we grow from, when we are true to the seed from which we sprang. It is so tempting when things become difficult to swear off relationship. I’ll just go it alone, I don’t need that person or this person, but we were never meant to be alone. We were created to abide in the shelter, the love, the relationship of one another.

 

Last week we spoke about how right and true and good it is to let our hearts break in compassion for those who suffer around us. This abiding in the shelter of one another is so very, very good and it brings us face to face with our own shortcoming and difficulties. Such very good and very hard work. We abide with one another when we stay present in the difficult and painful times, refusing to take the easy way out, saying, “well, that’s not my problem,” but instead remain present.

 

We learn how to stay present when others are able to stay present with us. For some of us this happens when we are children and our parents mother us and nurture us and care for us. For others of us we learn this as adults when friends and family-by-choice mother us and nuture us and care for us. And it is often only in hindsight that we can see how this abiding love has changed us, has formed us that we might be better people ourselves.

 

In the beginning we want to grow up to be just like our parents, as teenagers we hope we don’t and then as adults we miss them and see the strength and courage in them and we can only wonder how we missed it when we were younger.

 

We carry aspects and characteristics of those who have raised us even when we don’t want to. We look in the mirror one day and realize that we have become our parents in so many ways. We hear our words as if spoken by another voice and realize that we have adopted language patterns and habits from those who have cared for us. We hunger so much for this parenting, this mothering that our need is often expressed in unhealthy and dysfunctional ways. It can become a cry of pain and disappointment.

 

There were so many times growing up when I was angry with my mother, angry with that livid, furious anger that only a child can hold. In so many ways she failed to live up to my expectations.. She didn’t love us as much as we needed. But then who could have? The child in me still wants someone to come and make everything all right again even as the adult in me knows that I must face the world as it is. As a child I was so often furious with my mother for not being the be-all and end-all of my life, for not being the supermom I was sure I needed and should have had. Truth is, no one is able to be the mother we all so desparately want.

 

There were many times as an adult that I would be angry with someone who had offered a nurturing hand only to withdraw it later. A pastor who offered a kind word but didn’t want an extended conversation, a friend who would listen in depth and at length to the pain of my divorce but wanted that conversation to end before I was ready. No one is able to be the mother, the parent, we all long for and if we are not careful of our expectations, if we really expect these people to fill this need we may end up with the anger of a frustrated child. We are created to abide in relationship with one another but we are also created with a deep need of God’s healing and it is this relationship our hearts most long for.

 

It takes a long time to grow up. It was only after my divorce and my growing up that I began to look back at my childhood expectations of my mother and my friends and see how out of line they were. Truth is, no one could have loved me as much as I wanted. Life hurts. It is rough and tumble. It is hard knocks, for everyone. Everyone has their own story of grief, loss, and pain. There is no one who does not have a story. We learn to be gentle with one another because we all bear wounds, often unseen. We learn to be gentle with one another because these wounds continue to cry out for healing and sometimes those cries are angry, hurt ones, but we understand the loss and pain and so we are gentle anyway.

 

Somehow as a child I had expected to be sheltered from the pain of life. I had expected strong arms around me, mothering me, caring for me, loving me even when I wasn’t very loveable. When those arms were not so strong or when they were absent, the pain of that was all the greater because I expected it to be otherwise. My expectations of my mother were so high and perhaps they were higher even because she was so amazing. But no one could have lived up to those expectations. It takes a long time to grow up! It takes time to let go of our expectations of one another so that we an appreciate the people we have in our lives as they are, rather than resent them for not being what we feel they “should” be.

 

It took a long time to appreciate the gift of her vitality, her strength, her joy, her laughter, the gracious home we lived in, the bountiful meals we shared. It took a long time because I was so focused on the things I wasn’t getting. It took a long time to be grateful for the kind word my pastor offered instead of being resentful that I couldn’t have more. It took a long time to learn that my friends need to move away from my pain and loss were not rejection but rather an invitation for me to honor them, to care for them.

 

Today as we gather together I invite you to remember the gifts you have been given, perhaps by your mother, perhaps by someone who mothered you. I invite you to remember the gifts of a safe place to be, the gifts of laughter, the gifts of guidance, the gifts of abiding presence, the gifts of joy and love. Today in response to our scripture which tells us we ought to abide in the love of one another as Jesus abides in the love of the Creator, I invite you to come forward and name those who have mothered you, those who have nurtured and sustained you and light a candle for them as we call the roll of those past and present who have mothered us.

 

 

 

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.

11009143_10153308257599700_7121797870415266685_n

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.

seed paper towel

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.

sunrise

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

oregon-horse-trails-Badlands-Rock-003

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

Etty_Hillesum2

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.