Archive | June 2012

Weeping and Wailing

Today I heard a beautiful reading of the poem Cry Out In Your Weakness by the Sufi poet Rumi. The reading, the poem itself, and the photographs that accompanied the poem all worked on me and softened my heart. Reading and hearing this poem reminded me of the post Easter gospel story of the two disciples who were walking on the road to Emmaus while crying about their loss of their teacher who had been so recently crucified. A stranger joined them and when they tried to tell him their sorrowful story he stayed with them, did not alleviate their pain, but allowed them to talk and I am sure to weep and to wail. The stranger, who they had not recognized because they were lost in their sorrow, was Jesus himself.

Rumi speaks also about telling the truth, painful as it is, about our sorrow. In fact, he says that it is important to not only tell your sorrow but to give it away, as the disciples in their story telling gave their weeping to Jesus. Rumi says “Give your weakness to one who helps. Crying out loud and weeping are great resources.” Crying out loud and weeping are great resources not only because crying releases your anguish, but also because it gives another person the chance to be there to help. Sometimes we are surprised to see who really wants to be there for us. Again, from Rumi, “There are such helpers in the world, who rush to save anyone who cries out. Like mercy itself, they run toward the screaming. And they can’t be bought off. If you were to ask one of those, “Why did you come so quickly?” he or she would say, “Because I heard your helplessness.”

Some of us were trained from a young age to not show helplessness. We may hear and run toward another person’s helplessness but we do not show our own. We were trained to be self sufficient, always capable, sturdy and even stoic. Maybe there was a good reason for this training. Maybe it helped us for a while as we pushed our way up the hill of life.  Maybe our parents, or whoever else taught us this way of managing pain and sorrow were unaware of the lessons they were passing along. Maybe they thought that these lessons would protect us from needless suffering. This I do not know. But what I do know is that when we walk through life with a brave face even as we are being bruised and battered by the storm, that we lose a chance to be softened, and deeply healed. Rumi says “Cry out! Don’t be stolid and silent with your pain. Lament! And let the milk of loving flow into you.”  When we are silent with our pain we close off the nourishing milk of loving. We starve ourselves rather than cry.

Rumi was a Sufi mystic. His Beloved, was everywhere, in the beauty of the world and in the pain that ripped through his life. Just as Jesus was so in love with humanity that he emptied himself of everything that kept him separate from his fellow travelers, Rumi too preached a message of mercy incarnate. Mercy, he believed, is our birthright and our salvation and we should not hesitate to fill ourselves at the well. “And don’t just ask for one mercy. Let them flood in. Let the sky open under your feet.”

Today, I give thanks for every tear that I have shed and for every stranger and Beloved Friend who has rushed to sit by my side. Weeping and wailing are great resources. Thanks be for tears and the one who helps.

Called Or Uncalled

Here is the last lectionary reflection for this month of meditations that I am offering for the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowhship Virtual Monastery. On this summer solstice, as we head into all kinds of summer storms, it is a good one to reflect on. Enjoy!

Focusing Scripture: 

Mark 4: 35-41 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Psalm 9: 9-10 The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.  

Meditation: Who does not relate to this story? If you have ever been in a storm that took your breath away you know what the disciples were feeling and why even the skeptics among them let out that foxhole prayer of Help! This has been a season of storms as the climate is going hay wire. More towns and cities are experiencing thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and now, the summer storms of heat and fire. And of course, most of us are totally unprepared. No matter the kind of storm (even storms of the heart) we find out that we are just like the disciples. We set out for a nice evening boat ride to cool off after a hot and harried day and suddenly, out of the blue the great windstorm rises up, waves beat into our boats and we are swamped and scared to death. We thought that we were safe and just heading out for a ride into the sunset.

The disciples were not only afraid for their lives; they also felt unloved, uncared for, and simply abandoned. Isn’t that how it works? When your life is going along at a good and happy clip you feel like all is well with the world. And then the rug gets pulled out from under you and all that trust, all that faith, all that surety is gone in a flash and you are crying like a baby who woke up in the stroller and did not see their parent. Jesus is right. At those moments of crises, our faith seems to just blow away and we are lost again.

That is the truth. But it is also the truth that we who have known God in good times can call upon God; the LORD, Abba, Mamma, Jesus, whatever name that rises out of our fearful throats. We can, like disciples call out for help. “And those who know your name(s) put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.” All we have to do is to be who we are which is simply seekers. We do not have to steer the boat out of the storms of life. We do not have to stand up and shout at the waves to be still. We do not have to feel strong and sturdy or even very faithful. Jesus calls us out “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”  No Jesus, you are right. We are afraid. We are not faithful. When we are in times of trouble, we do not even know that you are in fact our stronghold. But we do know how to cry, and to practically capsize the boat by scrambling across the seats to get to You.

And this is the grace of the Gospel. In fact, it gets even better than that; because God is with us, whether we know it or not. Carl Jung once quoted Erasmus, by saying “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” Or “Called or uncalled God is there.” So as I read the Gospel and the Psalm today I take heart. If I can remember to call out to Jesus or God that is great. But even if I forget to seek, if I am in too much anguish during the storms of my life, God is still there in the boat. The disciples were not alone. Jesus was with them. We are not alone.  Jesus is with us, bidden or unbidden. Thanks be to God.

Prayer:

My God, my God, have you forsaken us? Do you not care that we are perishing in this storm? Are you even there in the back of the boat? Forgive us now as we show our lack of trust in your abiding presence. You are our saving grace in all manner of weather. No matter if we believe or not, you are in the boat with us, and that makes it all possible. Amen

Straighten Out My Soul

Today I received a gift in my “in box.” It was a quote by Langston Hughes, that remarkable African America poet,  playwrite and champion of the Harlem Renaissance. In this quote Hughes puts into sparse and elegant language what I would call the gift of a true life-giving community. He said “When peoples care for you and cry for you, they can straighten out your soul.” I have personally experienced this soul work in my own life and in my church life. When my parents died, just two years apart, after being my “go to” people from my youth and right through my adulthood I seriously doubted that I could go on as a full and soul-filled person. It was the rest of my family, my spouse and my children, and my dear friends who held me, cared for and about me, cried for and with me, in and in doing so lifted up that burden of loss and straightened out my twisted heart

I have witnessed this soul work in the churches I serve as well.  Because communities of faith and trust deal with our deepest longings for connection and our complex questions about existentiel meaning and purpose, it is common, rather than rare, for people to weep in the pews and behind the scenes in the parlors, the kitchens and at the bedsides. Suddenly a line in a hymn breaks our hearts open. A story in the Scripture becomes our story and we are caught up in the drama. A silent meditation gives us room in our busy lives to turn inward and what we find there can bring us joy or it can shock or sadden us. All of this can be too hard to bear without the community that loves us through through thick and thin.

I remember a line to a Gospel hymn. It pleads “Fix me  Jesus Fix Me!” We all need to be fixed, to be straightened out or patched back together, to be held and soothed, strengthend when we are weak, and brought back to our proper place when we are out of wack. Through prayer and song, through friendship and healing touch, through the breaking of bread and the sharing of a simple glass of cool water, we enter into the work of soul restoration. I give thanks today for Langston Hughes who puts into words what those of us who follow  the Way of The Fixer experience when we stop and take the time to listen and to cry for the broken hearted. It can straighten out your soul to be on either side of that equation.


Who Are You?

Here is another reflection that will be posted on the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship virtual monastery website. Today is a beautiful sunny day in  June – perfect for meditating on planting, growth and harvest!

Focusing Scripture:

Mark 4: 26-32 Jesus said, “God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps—harvest time!”

“How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”

Psalm 20: May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans.

Meditation

God’s kingdom is the time and the place where Life rules and where growth happens in the manner and the mystery of the Divine.  We live in that kingdom all the time, stumbling around, doing our best, and for the most part not even seeing what is in front of our faces. Or at least not understanding what is really important and what we are called to do about it. As The Message translation says “he has no idea how it happens.”

God’s kingdom is not “the man” and is not “the seed” itself, but is like seed thrown on the earth by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The kingdom of God is the alchemy, when one substance is transformed when it is picked up and tossed about by an agent and then left in the darkness of the earth which breaks it open so it can become fully what it is intended to be, and then the agent comes back into the picture and reaps the harvest. All that ~ action and rest, and action again is what the kingdom of God is like.

Or maybe the kingdom of God is like a pine nut (or in other translations, a mustard seed.) I like the pine nut translation myself because I have held such a nut in my hand and gazed up at that tall and sappy tree and marveled at how such a thing could be already contained within the nut.

It reminds me of the privilege I had at being at the birth of my nephew Marty. Suddenly, out from my sister’s earthy body slid this bloody and beautiful, fully formed and wide eyed boy. When Marty was born, and since then when I have held any newborn, I have sung a song of wondering. “Who are you? Where did you come from?  Who are you? How did you get here? Who are you? What did you come to teach us?”  Marty is now a pine tree of a man, towering over me, yet still fully who he was when he burst on to the scene. He is still teaching me.

In her weekly blog called The Edge of Enclosure, the Episcopal priest Suzanne Guthrie, introduced the theologian, poet and farmer Wendell Berry. Berry writes about what happens when human beings do not nurture the seed of God’s kingdom here on earth, but instead trample it. We do that because we have a strong tendency to fall asleep when God asks us to just stay awake through the harvest and during the most powerful and frequently painful scenes of life. I wonder. Is the terribly beautiful face of God witnessed in creation or anywhere too intolerable for us to keep in our view?

Berry says: “Those who will not learn in plenty to keep their place must learn it by their need when they have had their way and the fields spurn their seed. We have failed Thy grace. Lord, I flinch and pray, send Thy necessity.”

Most of us do not deeply and fully gain wisdom about the kingdom of God even by being surrounded by it. Perhaps some farmers do. Perhaps the mystics do. Perhaps the children do when they first burst onto the scene. But most of us, even though we are immersed in the kingdom do not understand how it happens or even what it is, never mind how to nurture it. I concur with Wendell Berry that for many of us, real learning about the kingdom of God comes not when we are sitting in the lap of creation but when we are faced with loss, grief, and need. Parables are wonderful for how they take us and toss us, sink us and find us, confuse us and challenge us, and finally, by the grace of God, bring us to growth.

The psalmist prays, as Berry prays, that we would be given not what we want, even what we dearly want, but what our hearts truly need. “May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans.”

And so today, on this glorious day in June, when the sun is shining, the children are splashing in the ponds, and the farmers are making hay, I pray. May our hearts desire to know and to love, to nurture and to marvel, to tend and to participate in Your kingdom. Today I pray the prayer for a newborn child, even as I struggle to stay awake to all of creation and to the Creator who rules.

Prayer

Who are You, where did You come from, how did You get here, what have You come to teach us?  ~ Amen and Blessed Be.

The Least of These

Here is an article that was written for the local paper in Winchendon MA where I serve the Unitarian Universalist church. Thought it might fit the format for this blog too. It certainly speaks to some of my observations as the “circuit rider” pastor that I am!

As a commuter to Winchendon from my home town in Amherst MA I have felt blessed to be called to serve in this community over the past 4 years. While a commuter does not know all the “ins and outs” of town life I do get to have an outsider view and from this perspective I have seen all the typical challenges of town life in tough economic times but also many blessings. We in the Winchendon area are truly blessed on many counts. We are blessed by the incredibly beautiful hills, woodlands, and water ways that are restorative to the eye and the heart in all seasons. We are also blessed by being a small enough town that we get to know each other, get to work closely together in civic arenas, and have “our say” heard, if not agreed with.

I am writing this column in the days before the Summer Solstice event, a community day of celebration that will hopefully again bring out the best of us. I love walking in the parade with the children from our church.  Somehow that parade exemplifies for me the spirit and the hopes of the town. It is loud, long, diverse, interactive, joyful and creative. Everyone gets to walk in the parade or watch on the sidewalk, make a float, call out to friends or participate in any number of other ways.  The work behind the scenes to make it all happen is typical of the work behind the scenes in any community venture.  And the result is pure fun and a blessing on us all.

Another blessing that is on my mind these days is the connections that all the houses of worship have in Winchendon. I am part of a pastors group that meets every couple of months. There are at least 7 faith communities that are represented including the Quakers from over the border in Jaffrey.  We meet, share our joys and our blessings, lift up the concerns that our particular church is experiencing, and work together on common purposes. Our greatest common “purpose” is what Jesus called “the least of these.”  In the Bible Jesus tries to tell his students that he is going to be leaving them but to not be disheartened because every time they reach out to recognize and care for the hungry, the sick, the naked, those in prison, or in any other way afflicted that they will be doing the same for him.  In our pastors group we recognize that “the least of these” are everywhere and it is our calling to reach out and make a difference to those who suffer in any of these ways.

The churches, large and small, with different theological beliefs but all with a deep calling to serve, do this in many ways. We unite on supporting our local Winchendon Community Action Committee because that organization is the hands on resource for so many social needs in town. We unite in supporting Our Neighbors Kitchen, a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church that is both church and community run and feeds the body and the soul of folks across the board in town. We unite in standing together for racial justice as we host the Martin Luther King Day Celebration, aware that combating racism and poverty (two of Dr. King’s passions) still plague our part of the world.

And we know that “the least of these” is a part of every single one of us who walk as part of the parade of life. We all have times when we are hungry; for food or for company. We all have times when we are thirsty; for a cooling drink or a refreshing vision. We all have times that we are naked; not having what we need for resources or naked in our fears. And we have all had times in our lives when we have been in prison, stuck behind the bars that keep us from each other. Life in Winchendon is not always  a celebration of life. Sometimes, for all of us, it is troubling, sorrowful, struggling, and just plain hard. Which is all the more reason for everyone; churches and community, young and old, impoverished and well to do, to come together, to count our blessings and stand together to make a difference in our town.  Without this wider and more inclusive view and deep commitment to care for the least of these, which is all of us, Winchendon would not be the great place it is to live and work.  Thank goodness for a community that tries to do what it is called to do.

Street Worker

Dorrie and her friend Maggie are on a trip to Canada, to the Gaspe Peninsula in the Quebec Province of Canada. It is a road trip starting at our home in Amherst, wandering a bit through New Hampshire and Maine, to the Gaspe, back through New Brunswick and home again. From my arm-chair phone conversations with her I have heard about some of their experiences in this French speaking and incredibly beautiful countryside in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Maybe Dorrie will start a blog herself and you can hear it direct from she and Maggie. But until then, here is the best story that I have heard so far.

Dorrie’s biggest concern about the trip was the fact between she and Maggie, they had about 7-10 phrases in French. For the most part Quebec is definitely a French province and they were going to be traveling mainly in the countryside. How would they be able to communicate their ideas and needs without offending the population who either do not speak English or who would rather not? I wasn’t concerned because Dorrie has already traveled to China, Japan, and the Dominican Republic, as well as she “travels” in some of the primarily Spanish communities in Holyoke MA. She always seems to be able to get across what she needs to. And besides, Dorrie and Maggie first met years ago when they were living in Alaska, which is another world from my limited experience! But anyhow, she was not sure how the language gap was going to be bridged.

On their second day in a small town on the peninsula they wanted to find a market to shop for food. They asked folks (using one of their 7-10 phrases) if anyone spoke English and were lucky to find a young man who assured them that he did. He gave some directions which they followed and got turned around in circles, only to find the man again in a small crowd. They waved him down and tried again to communicate their desire to find a “market.” Finally he offered that if they just gave him a lift that he could take them right there.

So there they were, American tourists faced with deciding if they should trust a man who seemed to really want to help them. As aliens in a strange land, they opened up the car, pushed around some of their gear, took a deep breath (and said a prayer or two,) gave him the prime seat , and off they went. He ended up taking them not to what we might call a “market” but to a huge store, larger than most of the stores we have in our area. “Market” in the Gaspe peninsula does not mean a tiny store front!

With their combined English and French vocabularies they got to know each other a bit. When Dorrie asked him what he did for work he said that he was a “street worker!”  She had two guesses which she kept to herself. Was he a prostitute or did he work on a road crew?  It turns out that it was neither. In fact he works with young people on the street as a kind of social worker! It seems like he was actually working by reaching out to these two American ladies who were obviously lost and needing a street worker.

Sometimes, maybe even most times, starting off trusting and being willing to ask for help will get you help. And as the Biblical patriarch Abraham learned when he opened up his home and his heart to the 3 strangers who came to his tent, sometimes you will find yourselves entertaining angels. Or in this case, a street worker! In the story of Abraham, one thing led to another and the strangers ended up telling the elderly Abraham and Sarah that they were going to become parents. Sarah laughed out loud about this prospect and ending up naming the baby Isaac, which means “laughter.” I do not think that Dorrie and Maggie are going to come back home with a baby in a bucket seat, but this story sure got me laughing!

OMG

Here is another reflection that will soon be posted on the Virtual  Monastery section of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship website. This one was a stumper, especially for someone like me who trusts that there is a possibility for change imbedded in every move we make. I was recently given a “body prayer” which is a prayer that I say while doing a yoga posture. The posture itself is “the chair” which sound a lot easier and relaxing that it is. While holding the chair posture I say silently or out loud, as many times as I can “grounding and rooting in trust.”  Then I straighten up, and lift my hands to the sky and say “I rise to possibility.” So, in this reflection I stand, grounded and rooted in trust, and I rise to endless possibility of healing and forgiveness. Here is the reflection.

Focusing Scripture:

2 Corinthians 4: 15-18 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Psalm 138:3 On the day I called, you answered me, you increased the strength of my soul.

Mark 3: 28-29 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

Meditation

Our Scripture readings today are a mixed bag. We are told that faith in the living Christ extends grace to more and more people, and brings thanksgiving and endless forgiveness even while our bodies are wasting away and we are suffering all kinds of hard times, which Paul calls “slight momentary afflictions!” On the other hand, the Gospel says that those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit are guilty of an eternal and unforgivable sin. It appears that while most of our sins and most of what we say will be forgiven, this one thing can never be forgiven. Jesus’ statement, as quoted in Mark, reminds me of the Creation story where God offered Paradise to Adam and Eve but gave them one forbidden fruit. And when they took the fruit they were not given a second chance but were thrown out of the garden “to till the ground from which they were taken.”

Here we have a second unforgivable sin. What is blaspheming against the Holy Spirit? Is it swearing, using the name of God in vain? Hopefully not because it seems like every other word we utter these days is OMG!  As a grandmother I feel like I am pushing a boulder up a hill when I tell my 3 and 7 year old grandchildren to try “Oh My Gosh”, or “Oh My Goodness.”  Truly I do think that it is a good thing to stop habitually saying Oh My God, but somehow I do not think that this is what Jesus was talking about.

In this passage Jesus was talking about the scribes who were saying that his healings were not by the power of the Holy Spirit but by the power of Beelzebul, the Prince of Demons (also called the Lord of the Flies.)  In slandering Jesus they denied that the Spirit was working through him and in doing so they cut themselves off from the saving grace of the Spirit. In cutting themselves off, they did not damn Jesus but damned themselves. Just as Adam and Eve turned away from God’s direction and chose to align themselves with the serpent, the scribes aligned themselves with the lesser power of evil. And aligning ourselves with evil does not bring endless grace and forgiveness but leads toward a pretty poor outcome.

But is it unforgivable? As a Universalist pastor I cannot agree with this reading. I trust that with God all things are possible, including forgiveness for blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. And as the rest of the Torah and the Christian Scriptures that followed showed, even Adam and Eve and the succeeding generations were redeemed when God renewed the covenant over and over again. Paradise and the tree of life was not destroyed for all ages but was guarded by cherubim!

If the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Eternal Life, then blaspheming the Spirit is in a sense, aligning ourselves with Beelzebul and choosing death over life. Anyone who aligns themselves with death rather than life knows how hard it is to come back into the graces. We align ourselves with death when we fall into despair and stay there. We align ourselves with death when we alienate ourselves from each other, from creation and from the creator. We align ourselves with death when we seek revenge rather than risk forgiveness. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is not an “ordinary” sin, but I trust that as with every other sin, this choice holds within itself the possibility of radical change.

Radical change is what Jesus offered in his ministry and is what threatened the scribes and what both threatens us and saves us. We may not be able to get out of our destructive choices by ourselves, but with God, all things are possible; even if the Gospel of Mark says that they “can never have forgiveness.” Maybe even Jesus (or Mark) was still learning about the power of the Holy Spirit!

Prayer

Oh Spirit of Life and Love, Unseen and yet Eternal God. Help me to not lose heart, even when I doubt you and deny you and your power. Help me to call on you in my darkest times and answer my prayers. Increase the strength of my soul even when my body is wasting away. Oh My God, when I come face to face with your healing power, I bow to Your Spirit and offer thanksgiving. With you, all things are possible.