Living in Place

Over the past few months in my new position as minister of Trinity Church I have been privileged to meet with a variety of people who are struggling in one way or another with issues of  security and specifically secure housing.  I have understood these concerns to be both spiritual and practical (as if those two are separate?) and have grown in my own ministry by grappling with all the facets of these questions. I have heard of the term “food insecure” in relationship to people who do not have enough food to feed themselves and their family. Now I am learning about “shelter insecure.” Here is an article that I wrote for our local newspaper about this real and increasingly common insecurity and how new ways of “home making” are emerging through this struggle. It was titled Living In Place.

Dorrie and I came to Shelburne Falls in November, just as people were starting to huddle in their homes to keep out of the cold weather. Now that spring has sprung and folks are out on their stoops and walking in town or out in the beautiful recreational areas, I am getting to know who is who and what is what. I am learning whose sister is married to whom, whose son works where, who used to live in this house or that, what life used to be like and what people fear and hope about the future. I am also seeing what it is that brings people to this area and how many people leave and then come back home to settle again. All this is helping me get to know West County not just as “any place” but as your and my place.

Maybe it is my age or maybe it is my new location and position, but not too long ago I was talking with people about caring for young children and about work stresses and strains in single and two parent families. Now conversation more often turns to questions of health and well being and security and insecurity. These questions are both social and spiritual because at the root of our being is a need to know that we are held and protected at home in the world. Often those questions lead to concerns about housing. More people, and not just elders, want to “live in place.”  Elders want support in safely staying in their homes for as long as possible and younger folks who are still working want to live in this place that they have come to call home. This is not so easy when affordable housing is hard to find and when their income may have dropped due to being less than gainfully employed. 

As I get out more to meet people I have been in awe about how different age groups are coming together around the need for home making. More families are “bunking up” together with apartments or extra rooms being added on for the eldest. Sometimes younger people are not able to go out on their own or are now returning home with kids in tow. Nieces are making spaces for Aunties and vice versa. Some elders are looking for community style living rather than holding on to their homes. And then there are the folks who are single by choice or by circumstance that are now choosing to share home spaces with others in similar situations.

I know that for many people this is not ideal and is not their first chose for living in place.  And yet, maybe this kind of creative adaption is a blessing in disguise. Maybe, just maybe, the breaking down of our ability to independently care for ourselves is opening us, person by person, family by family, to a new way of being at home.

As a pastor I think about how it is that people strive to connect with each other and with that which is ultimate in our lives. I wonder if we were really intended to live our lives so much on our own or if human beings are supposed to live more inter-dependently? God, which is the Great Reality that underpins everything, is a total experience of interdependence. And the word “religion,” stems from the word “re-ligare,” which is translated as “re-connect.” So from where I sit, the trend toward positive connections, including co-habitation, may be a good thing.

Local communities like Shelburne Falls and the surrounding towns, and the communities we form within them, are complicated systems that change with the changing times.  Living in place may look different from how we thought it would look, but different can be a good thing. I am no expert on housing, but I do know that for many people being alone is not the best option and being at home is what we want.  And if we can find new creative ways to share home, what could be better?

This entry was posted on May 21, 2013. 2 Comments

Justice Opinions

This was first printed as an opinion in the Shelburne Falls and West County Independent newspaper…..At the end of March many of us were glued to news sources to get a glimpse into the proceedings of the United States Supreme Court as the Chief Justices heard testimony about the Defense of Marriage Act and how that law impacts married and unmarried gay citizens. (Full disclosure here: my wife Dorrie and I are definitely impacted by DOMA including not receiving 1100 laws/privileges given to heterosexual married folks!) Now we must wait until late June, when the Supreme Court is expected to deliver it’s opinion and we will know the effect on current law.

It is not only the Chief Justices, but also ordinary citizens who have both observations and opinions on issues of justice. It has been frequently stated that this is a sea-changing event in a sea-changing time. But I believe that it is important to look to history to see where we have come from to really appreciate where we are today. Many of us “of a certain age” never imagined these kinds of public conversations could happen— not only opinions being shared in the Supreme Court, but also in our families, in our churches, in newspapers, and on the street. This is because for so many years gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people lived not in the limelight but in the darkness of the closet. Some of us did not even recognize ourselves, never mind each other, and for the most part our sexual orientations were completely hidden. Because we so successfully and, from my point of view, tragically hid who we were, we were not seen or heard or even clearly imagined. We kept our opinions to ourselves because if we shared them, we might end up as martyrs.

This began to change with the 1969 Stonewall demonstrations that lead to the gay liberation movement. It was during this time that some GLBT people bravely began to put themselves on the line, coming out of the closet, knowing that the immediate result would be more violence and more social isolation. Because these courageous men and women braved hatred and ignorance in order to be seen, now, more than 30 years later, civil dialogue about sexual orientation is finally possible. And now, in 2013 we have this incredible moment in history where marriage equality is being openly discussed in the United States Supreme Court.

This is happening now, and not 30 years ago, because now more than ever, GLBT people are seen and heard. When previously hidden people are visible and personally known by our neighbors, there is the real possibility for thoughtful and respectful conversation and not behind-the-back comments, but in up-front conversations about justice, like those that we have been witnessing in these Supreme Court hearings. As visibility increases there is a greater chance for public conversation about human rights, not only for GLBT people but for other minority populations.

I have my own strong opinions about what I hope will be the opinions that the Justices will bring forward in June, and I imagine that other people also have strong opinions. But today my over-riding emotion is gratitude. I am beyond words full of gratitude for all the courageous men and women who, over these past decades, have literally stuck their necks out of the closet so that they could be seen in their full beauty and glory.

What Is Really Important

Today many of us are reeling as we heard about the bomb explosions that landed during the Boston marathon and at the John F Kennedy Library. Two dead, many wounded and all the facts are not yet in. Violence, especially when it is close to home, shakes us up and calls forth our prayers and our sorrow, our fear and our helplessness. It also causes us to ask again,  that important question which is “what is important?”  Most of us, myself included, go through our days sleeping at the wheel or obsessing about the small stuff until we get a wake up call like violence and death and then suddenly we sit up straight and at least for a short while pay attention to those who we love and those who need our love. We pay attention to our calling to participate in the healing of the world and we try in small ways to step up.

Today, before I even heard about the Boston explosions, I was given a long lesson on “What is important.” The lesson came to me unsolicited, from my grandchildren. We were sitting around the dining room table eating lunch and one child started to say that eating well was really important. And then the other one, not to be undone, said that sleeping was really important. And before you knew it they were riffing off each other about “What Is Really Important!” First it was eating good food and getting enough sleep. Then there was exercise  and oxygen and vitamins, going to school and learning new things, trees and animals and shelter, brushing your teeth and saying you are sorry, family and church meetings, God and Love and the grass and water, and our internal organs and rain and wind and sunshine, and fun, and God and Love and family again, and helping people and back again to eating and sleeping. They went on and on, so pleased with themselves that they knew so much about What Is Really Important.

It was a bit like talking with Pooh and Piglet about Really Serious Things and the joy factor was very big for all of us. They taught me today that what is important is caring for ourselves and each other and the world, being held in love by God and family, and being grounded in our environments. It is not about stuff or holding on to hurt feelings or getting all caught up in the minutia or the drama  of personalities. And so by the end of the day when I heard about the explosions and loss of life in Boston I was able to immediately go to prayer and inter-connection with all that is. No wonder Jesus called the little ones to the table. I am sure that he too needed teachings to keep himself and his disciples on the path of What Is Really Important in life. I know that I do.

Near-life Experiences

Here is another opinion column that I wrote this month for the Shelburne Falls Independent newspaper. In the spirit of Easter, I offer it here!

Over the past few years I have noticed that a popular theme in movies and books is the experience that some people have had in dying and living to tell about it. From these people (real or fictional), we hear about the beckoning light at the end of a tunnel, a great sense of peace swooping in and taking over, a fast rewind of a life and then sometimes a strong physical experience of being sent back to life. As my wife’s Aunt Rena reported, Jesus told her, “Rena, get up out of bed. I am not ready for you!” Or as she said at other times, “He said, ‘Rena, I am not through with you!’”

These near-death or dead and brought-back-to-life stories draw us in because most people would “die” to know what really happens on the other side of life. Whether we believe in life after death, resurrection, reincarnation or if we settle for the earthly wisdom of “dust you are and to dust you shall return,” most of us are fascinated with near-death stories.

I am thinking about all this as my church is walking with other local churches on what we call the “Lenten Way,” which is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) preceding Easter. Lent, among other things, is the time that Christians stop to look at who we really are and what hinders us from living into our best selves. During Lent we practice new ways of being truthful and forgiving of self and others. For many Christians, Easter is the time that we pay less attention to bunny rabbits (but of course who can turn down a chocolate egg?) and more attention to the central story of Christianity, which is the mystery of Jesus, who lived and died and came back to life to tell his students about it.

Actually, one of the interesting things is that Jesus did not really say anything about what happened to him when he died and was brought back to life.  In the Christian scriptures there is nothing about a beckoning light, a review of his life, a welcome home or a push back to earth. Instead, what we hear about in his after-death experience is his instruction to his followers to accept life, his and ours, and to spread love and peace here and now.

That brings me to thinking about how often people do or don’t report “near-life” experiences. Near-life experiences are times when you suddenly find yourself not walking around asleep or numb or dead, but actually alive. Near-life experiences are when you are jolted out of “Is this all there is?” to “This is it!” Near-life experience is not nirvana or heaven because nirvana and heaven, as far as I understand them, are outside daily life as we know it. Near-life experiences are when we find ourselves suddenly closer to life than we have ever been.

Most of us have not brushed close to death and lived to tell about it, which is maybe why we like to hear about these encounters. But all of us have the chance to brush close to life and spread the word. When we do come close to fully and deeply living with all our senses alive, our response more often than not is to be grateful. The mystic Meister Eckhart is reported to have said, “If the only prayer that you say in life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.”

So as we slide into the celestial season of spring and the church season of Eastertide, when suddenly everything that looked dead comes to life, I am pausing, as I believe Jesus paused in his life, to say “thank you” for life. I do not always see life or feel it or fully embrace it, but when I do, I am grateful that we do not have to die to live.

This entry was posted on March 28, 2013. 3 Comments

Belonging

I just started writing a column for our local newspaper in Shelburne Falls; the Shelburne Falls and West County Independent. Here is the most recent one. It was written for our community here but  I hope that it speaks to others as well!  It is called Belonging.

A church friend and I were talking about “the good old days.” Those were the days when church and synagogue pews were filled to overflowing and young people were happy to set aside precious time to participate in a religious youth group. Of course, it is not only the world of faith that has changed, but also family life, social networking, spiritual beliefs, work pressure and economics — you name it. The good old days (putting aside the real question of whether those days were actually good or not) are definitely a thing of the past. What is not clear is where our faith communities are headed. Paul, one of the first visionaries of the first century Christian communities, was well aware of the problems of forward looking when he said something like “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.”

If we cannot see the future without squinting, it might be more helpful to stick to the moment. In this moment, one thing that gives me hope is that there is a shift right now in many churches (and I believe that this is true for other faiths as well) in the expectations that churches have for people who are peering through the stained glass windows and considering entering. The expectation for some churches used to be something like this: If you want to be welcomed in, you must believe what we believe. Once you demonstrate your belief, then we will teach you to behave the way that we behave. And then, when you accomplish this task, you might actually belong!

Now that three-point process is flipping around. The emphasis is shifting from believe, behave and belong to belong, behave and believe. Coming into a church or other community of faith still requires courage — maybe even more so in our age when the failures of religious groups to live up to our espoused values are making headline news. So when a visitor dares to come to visit a house of worship, the response at the door is not a question like “do you believe what we believe?” but more often a statement like “welcome stranger, there is a place for you here.” The assumption is that the visitor belongs, and when you belong, you get to fully participate in the party. You see how people are behaving around you and you learn the stories that are the foundation for the group. Over time, sometimes a long time, you discern if people are walking the walk, not just talking the talk of their faith. If the behaviors match the welcome, then what happens to many people is that they begin to believe, or to trust, that something good is happening — in them, in their extended community and in the world.

I don’t think that this change is just a fad. If anything, this reversal is going back to the roots of many religions. Most ancient religions, my Christian faith included, began with a group of people uniting around something or someone that had changed their lives. The people belonged together because they all loved their teacher or the teachings. Then, over time, the people learned how to behave in the way that their spiritual teacher behaved. And when that happened, they started to believe and trust that something good was happening.

It is true: I am part of a movement that is trying to bring back the good old days. Not the days when churches were busting at the seams, but farther back, when people gathered to practice what it meant to be deeply in love. Yes, like all human ventures, religious groups fail at this a lot of the time. What starts out as love can becomes rigid, or even worse, hurtful. Then, thank goodness, the whistle blowers and the prophets start shouting and there is an opportunity to revive the precious core of truth that started the whole venture. I believe that this is where we are at this moment in time. We are being summoned back to our core. We are acknowledging how far we have strayed from the deep truths that uphold religion and we are being given a chance to start again. This time we are starting not with belief but with belonging, which is another word for love.

That is a start that I am excited to be part of here in Shelburne Falls. Welcome stranger; there is a place for you here.

This entry was posted on March 9, 2013. 1 Comment

Lullabye And Goodnight

This week I had one of those up close encounters with Hesed. Hesed is the Hebrew word for the steadfast love of God, as in the Book of Lamentations “The steadfast love of God never ceases; God’s mercy never comes to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Hesed is not love when it is convenient and is not love that depends on receiving love back. It is steadfast and never ending and is founded on faithfulness. Hesed is a rare bird to sight and when I witness that love,  it moves me to tears. This time I saw Hesed in the parking lot of the nursing home.

I was going to the nursing home to visit a few members of my church. As I got out of my car I heard a quiet but steady singing. Sitting in the car next to me was a very old man. Slowly and in a labored fashion, he was getting out of the car and heading toward the front door of the home. I said to him “That is a beautiful song that you are singing.” He responded with “I come here 10 times a day to sing to my wife.” When I returned with an exclamation about how blessed he and his wife are to have each other he told me that she is sleeping most of the time but still he comes, 10 times a day to sing love songs. The nursing home staff, he told me, says that he comes too often.

And then he started to sing Lullabye And Goodnight as he pushed the button to open the heavy door. I sputtered some inadequate response to his faithful love as he walked down the hallway singing quietly but with great determination. I just stood there, the way you stand because if you weren’t standing you might just fall down. Standing on Holy Ground. Ever since then I have been humming that love song and remembering him.

In the flash of time that it took to hear him sing the refrain I also flashed on to my grand daughter who at 4 years of age still likes taking a nap at my house and who always requests that I sing her 2 songs. Her choice is always the same songs; Let’s  Go Fly A Kite, and Lullaby And Good Night. When I sing Lullaby to her I sing my own Nana words which include “when you wake I will be here” and if I forget those words she corrects me. Because this is our little hesed, our little moment in which we each declare that what is needed now is not just a tune but a promise.

That is how it is sometimes; one moment overlays another and we are pitched back and forth between the beginnings of life and the end of life. I hope to God that when it is me laying in the bed sleeping, or trying my best to drift away, that someone will come 10 times a day no matter what the staff says about it to sing to me and bless me with steadfast love. If it is you, you have my permission.

This entry was posted on February 27, 2013. 1 Comment

I Miss Them

It is a kind of strange thing to live right next door to my work. In some ways it is just wonderful. No long drive to work. Easy access when I forget something at home – just a walk across the driveway and there I am. In a pinch I can run between buildings in my slippers and get something from the church mailbox and bring it back home. Yes, my “work” is being the pastor of Trinity Church and Dorrie and I now live in the parsonage, right next door.

The strange part is looking out the window when I am washing dishes and seeing a church! And not just a church but my church. It reminds me of being a child and walking to school and church (because they were connected) and seeing the rectory where the priest lived with some woman and wondering what went on there? And right next door to the school was the convent, and again, wondering, what really goes on there when the nuns leave school and go home. And now, here we are, in one of those places that some people wonder about and it turns out that it is totally ordinary, except of course, that my home study window looks out on the stable. No, not a horse stable, but the manger kind of stable. The manger kind of stable where for the last month Mary and Joseph and the animals and angel, and then finally Jesus and the Magi were all sleeping at night and watching us walk by them every day.

A few days ago we celebrated the Epiphany during our Sunday service. The Epiphany is the day when we remember the Magi crossing the desert (and it might have taken them not 12 days but 1.5 years to get there) and finally arriving, offering their gifts, bowing down to the baby and skedaddling back across the desert to Persia before King Herod could find them and drag the details about that baby right out of them.  During the service we also remembered that in the days to follow (and that is now, if you count in liturgical time) Papa Joseph had one of those scary dreams where he heard God tell him to grab his wife and child and run to Egypt to get away from that same violent King. And they did. They ran. And they could not stop what happened next, which is that Herod went ballistic (literally) and killed all the children in the region who were 2-years-old or younger. The Christ Child was born, and still, violence erupted. Just like now.

So here I am. Standing at my window, and looking out and the stable and finding it empty. It is empty because we followed the story line and took everyone away. First the Magi, and then the family, and finally the animals, and even the straw bedding.  We left the star and the angel but the stable is empty and I miss them. I miss the beautiful faces of all the figures.  I miss the family especially, the way you miss a family if they move away from the neighborhood. I miss them the way I miss my parents, who when we were young, helped all of us 8 kids, walk those Magi down the stairs and across the room to finally meet the baby on Epiphany Sunday. I miss the baby and I also miss the children, both the children in Bethlehem, and the children in Newtown Connecticut, and all the children of the world who are no longer in the arms of a loving world.

When the stable was first erected this year I thought it was sweet. And then I thought it was lovely and moving. But now that it stands there empty I think it is powerful. Missing them stirs my heart. I wonder tonight if really they are not so far away after all. Have they moved into the parsonage? Have they moved into my very being?  I miss them, yet somehow, they seem to be close by. My parents are in my heart. The Magi are traveling in my own life. The Holy Family are in my house. Missing them has brought them home.

Literally home. Because in fact they are now packed up and put away, in a room out back with a bunch of other church things that I have not had the courage to face because really, if Christmas is in the back room of my house, what about Easter?  This is what it is like, living next door to work.