Jesus, the people, the cathedral and me

(reflections on John 4:5-42)

Sometimes when I think about Jesus he seems so far away – someone in a distant time and place – more spiritual than physical – more transcendent than incarnate. I get tired and I wonder if Jesus is really calling me or if I am just hearing my own desire echoing back across the hills. And then, three Sundays into the Lenten journey, he shows up “at about noon” in the Gospel and I am right there with him, thirsty and needing a drink of water to refresh my spirit.

This past Sunday I went again to the Cathedral in the Light, the outdoor worship service in Greenfield. I went because our church had accepted a request to help with making the meal for the worshipers. So right after our 10am worship a group of us gathered around the table downstairs and we made sandwiches to go. Ham and cheese. Peanut butter and jelly. It was fun slapping those sandwiches together. We laughed and we said a prayer that everyone would be blessed by this activity. I said that I would bring the food to the Cathedral. I wanted to be there and I also wanted to be home. It was a long day.

I got to the common with my box of sandwiches. It was about 2pm. Cold and windy. There was a storm on the horizon but it held off.  People volunteered to take different parts in the worship service. The musician played “Sanctuary” on his guitar and we got ready to be a living sanctuary. We sang and prayed. There was a very drunk person reaching out to everyone he saw and asking “Is this church?” Yes, this is church.

Then Jesus showed up – tired, thirsty, and hungry – in us, around us, between us, among us. Knowing us and connecting us; showing us what we needed to see about ourselves and God and what it means to be a sanctuary where everyone is invited not in spite of who we are but because of who we are. Like Jesus and the woman found their place at the well in today’s Gospel story, we found our place on the common.

After communion I helped serve food. One man asked repeatedly for the potato chips bag. Not for the chips, although they would be fine too, but for the bag. Twice he asked me before another man had to tell me “The potato chip bag is sturdy and will keep food fresher in all kinds of weather. Give the man what he needs. Not what you think he needs.”

Jesus and the woman at the well were called to give each other what was needed – respect, water, words of encouragement, testimony to the power of being seen and loved and saved from the seemingly endless loop of discouragement and invisibility. Sanctuary.

Jesus says “the hour is coming and is now.” Now, with all of us giving and receiving what we need and being known for everything that we have done and not done. Yes we are thirsty and hungry. That is how we know we are alive. Like Jesus and the woman at the well and every other searching person, our food is to do the will of the one who sent us. No more, no less. That is plenty for today.

Trans- figuration

(A version of this blog post was printed in the Shelburne Falls West County Independent newspaper.)

By the time that you read this blog, the moment will be over, but the effect will be ongoing; the moment in my church and in many Christian churches when we are dropped into a world like and unlike ours, a place where worldly events blind us with light and with suffering. I am talking about the Transfiguration of Jesus and the transformation of his followers, including me.

Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday before the church season of Lent (which, by the way, comes from the word for “lengthening,” as in the lengthening of daylight in spring.) On this Sunday we heared a story of Jesus and his disciples climbing a high mountain. When I hear this story told in my hill town I think of them climbing the steep hill to the fire tower. Maybe because when I climb this hill I always mutter, “This is no fun. Why did I decide to do this?” That is, until I get to the top.

Which is exactly what happened to the disciples. Jesus had been teaching them for days that following him would be hard. “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose it and those who lose their lives for my sake will find it.” Up they climbed, huffing and puffing and maybe muttering under their breath, “Really, Jesus?”

They reached the top and, in a split second, Jesus was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzlingly white, and suddenly Moses and Elijah, teachers long since dead, where standing there, chatting it up with Jesus. Boom! Climbing, sweating, muttering, complaining, worrying, and suddenly everything changed.

What I am thinking about is how shocking it is when a dear friend changes and, for a long while, we do not recognize them in their new form. We might even resist their “new  you” because it does not fit our experience of them. Think about what happens when an individual transitions from one gender to another. What do we see? What do we call them? Who are we if they seem to be someone else?

Or what about when an alcoholic turns a corner in recovery. Do we trust in that person, that recovery, or do we keep looking over their shoulder?  Or how about when you think that someone is nothing at all like you and after a deep conversation you find out that you are more like each other than you could have dreamed. How shocking and how, well, trans-formative.

Then comes the long walk down the hill and into your life. Same suffering and same complaining. Same struggling to follow your teacher. Same human foibles and same hopes pulling you back and forward. And yet. Having experienced that people can change and our perceptions can change so drastically, we have an opening to a new way of living. A way that says, “Don’t be so certain. Don’t be so sure. Don’t be so quick to assume. Don’t be so comfortable with how life is at this moment.”

I love the way this out-of-this-world story is so much an in-this-world way of living. It tells me that following my teacher is a powerful mix of sorrow and joy and surprise. As I struggle to get up and get going every day in the political and cultural climate that I am living in, this story increases my faith that trans-figuration of individuals and groups, and me, too, is not only possible but is happening. Hard going. Surprising. Strengthening. Shockingly beautiful, and nothing that we could have expected. Could it be that in the middle of all this suffering, we are being transfigured? Look around. Who do you see?

Blessed Be

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:1-8)

Here is something that you need to know about me. I am not hard wired to do justice. Humility is not my second nature. I struggle to love kindness. Somehow I think that might be true for you too. So, how can we live into right relations with God and our neighbor? Where do we go from here when here is an often unkind and unjust world? Not sure if this is a good description of “here?” Read the press. Listen to the news. Consider the evidence.

Then listen to the Gospel of Mathew, or any Gospel for that matter, and trust that the disciples were a lot like us. Jesus called them one by one. He took them around; teaching, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing people of sickness. Huge crowds followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan. Then something surprising happened. When Jesus saw the crowds following him he took an abrupt turn away. He went to the mountain and he sat down.

This phrase, “he sat down” reminded me of something that was told to a young pastor by the name of Howard Thurman. Howard’s mentor met with him after Howard’s first sermon and said “Howard, I am going to tell you something that was told to me after my first sermon. When you are done preaching – sit down!”

The Sermon on the Mount starts with eight statements, each one beginning with the word blessed. The Greek word for blessed is makarios. Makarios does not pray for a blessing, it affirms a pre-existing condition of being seen and blessed. Jesus faces his disciples. He says “Listen up! I am taking about you!” You are poor in spirit and full of need. You can’t do for yourselves. You are grieving. In your meekness you can use your limited power to serve God and the world. You are hungry to be in right relationship with God and your neighbors. You are filled with mercy. Your heart is open. You are peacemakers in a war weary world. Because of what you stand for some people won’t associate with you. Accept that. Trust that God is with you as God was with the prophet Micah and every other person who sat still and listened and was not afraid to speak and act for justice and mercy. And do this in the company of others. Blessed be the people – all the people.

I was sitting with someone visiting our church last week. We talked about why we come together in faith communities. Why disciples invited their brothers and sisters to follow Jesus on what Kayla McClurg calls “the blessing path.” It is because on our own we cannot do what God requires. It is way too hard. We wander way too much. But with each other we can practice what we preach and step by step we can bless as we are already blessed. Of course it is not easy. Of course we do it wrong much of the time. What matters is that this is the path that Jesus walked. And that is all that we need to know for now. Here is the broken world. Here we are. Step on the path.

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