“To Care for Earth and All Her Creatures”

a reflection on Exodus 3:1-15

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When was the last time you stood barefoot outdoors? When was the last time stretched out upon the ground and let your soul, your body, remember its home on the sacred body of the earth? Can you remember what it felt like? Sandy? Rocky? Warm? Damp? Skin to skin with the body of this holy ground. Only then, says the Lord to Moses this morning. Only when the soles of your feet are reunited with the sacred body of the earth, says the Creator of all that is… Only then will you come to know the plans I have for you. Plans to help me set the world right.

Once upon a time, our spiritual ancestors knew that God is alive and present to us in the very body of this earth. Moses, tending his father-in-law’s flocks. Jesus walking alone in the wilderness for 40 days and nights. They knew that we come from the earth and to earth we return, and that in-between, we are made for union, for deep communion with the living, breathing body of all life. But somewhere along the way, we forgot. This season here at Peace, we are remembering who we are, and whose we are, by making our way through our shared covenant – the promises we make to God and to each other as we make our way in beloved community. This morning, we’ve come to the line in our covenant where we promise “to care for earth and all her creatures, reconciling ourselves to them in love.”

That word, reconcile, means to reunite, or reconnect, those who have been separated from one another. To reconcile is to restore a broken relationship. The witness of our own wilderness tradition is that the sacred work of reconciling ourselves with God requires us to heal our broken relationship with the sacred body earth and all her creatures. And that requires connection. Through the soles of our feet; through placing our bodies in intimate contact with the skin of the earth. Moses knew this. I’m pretty sure Jesus knew this. Indigenous peoples all over the world still know this. We, however, forget all the time. We forget our own bodies as we lose ourselves in thoughts and fears, in our telephone screens and our cars. And as we forget our own bodies, we lose contact and sacred relationship with the body of the earth that is for us, as for our ancestors, the very presence of the living God. So much forgetfulness. So much harm we do when we forget that we, along with all creation, are one body. Sometimes it seems that not even a burning, talking bush would get our attention. Sometimes it seems that even a suffering, burning planet might not be enough to call us back into right relationship, into reconciliation, with earth and all her creatures.

And yet we believe, and we promise each other every week, that the way we live matters. That the spiritual practices we undertake have the power to change us, and to make us more able reconcile with a world, with a planet, that needs our healing love.

A few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks on retreat at a Buddhist monastery outside of Ukiah. While I was there, I visited a community of monks who belong to a Buddhist lineage that comes from the forests of Thailand. This lineage is called the Thai forest tradition and each monk in this tradition, high up in the forested hills of Ukiah, has a tiny, one-room hut. Outside of each hut there is a path that leads about twenty paces into the forest. Then it stops. And every day, each monk spends hours walking barefoot to the end of the path and back again. Walking very slowly, paying careful attention to the sensation of each part of the foot as it makes contact with the sacred earth. Walking and breathing, walking and breathing, praying peace into the earth with every step.

When was the last time you walked slowly enough to feel every part of your foot as it made contact with earth? When was the last time you walked slowly enough to bless the earth with every step?

I want to invite you this morning, if you’re willing, to give this particular spiritual practice a try, as a way of walking ourselves, praying ourselves, into reconciliation with earth and all her creatures. Now, if you are not comfortable walking, you can do this with us as you sit in your chair with your feet on the floor. But either way, walking or sitting, I invite you to go ahead and take off your shoes and let your feet find their way to holy ground. I realize that we’re not quite on the ground here, but this beautiful wood floor is made from the body of trees that spent their whole lives rooted deeply in the earth, and I’m pretty sure we can find the earth through them. So I invite you to take off your shoes, let your feet find the earth, and to rise in body or spirit. And now very gently, find your way to the outside edge of the room, where you’ll have room to walk. We’ll walk in a great circle this morning, counter-clockwise around the room.

One of the great teachers of walking meditation is the Buddhist teacher Tich Nhat Hanh, who advises us simply to begin walking, focusing our attention on the sensation of touching the earth with the sole of each foot. You’ll probably need to walk slowly in order to feel this sensation. Go ahead and find a pace that allows you to be aware as you lift each foot and place it down upon the earth. See if you can bring a quality of tenderness to your steps, with each footstep offering a blessing to the earth. When distractions arise, simply smile to yourself, acknowledge them without getting involved, and return your attention and care to the moment-to-moment sensations of walking. If you are sitting, I invite you to see what it feels like to breath up through the soles of your feet: breathing in peace; breathing out love. With each step, each breath, allowing the earth to support and heal you. With each step, each breath, blessing and healing the earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh likes to say, “The miracle is not to walk on water.  It is to walk on this earth with awareness.”

Very slowly, I invite you to let your feet carry you to this table where we gather as the community of all creation. Maybe as you walk, you can sing this blessing into the earth…

 

Peace before us

Peace behind us

Peace under our feet

Peace within us

Peace over us

Let all around us be peace.

 

 

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Away from Home…

A reflection on John 4:1-9 for March 26, 2017

This morning, we mark the fourth Sunday in Lent. It’s the fourth Sunday of the season in which we do as Jesus does: we carve out some extra space and time to become more intentional about our relationship with God, and about the covenant—the sacred promise—we make with God, with one another, and with the world. This season here at Peace, we’re taking a close look at our own covenant – the one we use here in worship to remember exactly who (and whose) we are. And this morning, we’ve come to the place in our covenant where we promise to “take up Christ’s mission around the world, striving for justice and peace.”

So I’d like to take a look today at this word “mission,” and ask what it might have meant for Jesus in his time and place, and what it might mean for us, right here, in this place and time.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “mission’? We use this word to mean both our purpose, and the act of traveling away from home to fulfill that purpose.

And in fact, in our gospel reading this morning, Jesus finds himself pretty far from home. Maybe not geographically very far from home; after all, he’s walking wherever he goes. But culturally, he’s pretty far from home. As our text notes, Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ time are not on friendly terms. In fact, they do their best to separate themselves from one another. Jesus has crossed a border this morning into what we might call enemy territory. And there, all alone, he sits down beside a well.

Usually, when we read this text together, we move along at a pretty good clip, so that we can get to the part where Jesus has a very intriguing conversation with a Samaritan woman who comes to draw water from the well. But this morning, I’d like to hit the pause button and zoom in on this scene where Jesus is simply sitting, all by himself, beside this well.

Jesus’ friends, it seems, have gone off together to find some food. The text doesn’t say exactly where they’ve gone, but wherever it is, they are together—which is a good way to travel safely when you’re in hostile territory. But this is not at all what Jesus does. Jesus doesn’t seem concerned about finding safety in numbers. Instead, he goes all by himself to sit beside a communal well: a conspicuous place where he is certain to be found by the residents of this land. Which is exactly what happens, of course. But before he can meet anyone at all, before he can have a heart-to-heart or soul-to-soul conversation with anyone in that land, Jesus has to make himself available for that interaction. So Jesus sits himself down beside that well and makes himself highly visible (and, I would say, highly vulnerable) to anyone who might come along.

We tend to talk a lot about the way Jesus welcomes everyone to the table, and we love to do the same. What we don’t talk about quite as much is the fact that Jesus does not invite folks into his own, familiar home. Instead, Jesus does something even more risky, even more radical. Jesus leaves his home and walks around unarmed, undefended, thirsty and hungry, into other people’s homes.

Follow me, Jesus says, all through the gospels. Follow me. Do as I do. Be as I am. And very often with Jesus, actions speak even louder than words. Be unafraid, Jesus says by his actions this morning. Be unafraid to leave your home. Be unafraid to leave the familiar and the safe. Be unafraid to travel through a new land. And when you get there, Jesus says. Don’t rush through. Don’t surround yourself only with the familiar faces of your friends. Instead, Jesus says, do whatever it takes to make yourself available to the people who live there. Sit down and listen. Find out about their lives. Ask them for a drink of water, maybe. Then see what happens.

Scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann notes that this kind of vulnerable travel, far away from home, is a deep pattern in our tradition, going all the way back to Abraham, who was called to leave his home in order to become a blessing to the world. Brueggemann even has a name for this kind of travel. He calls it a “fearless neighborliness.” A “fearless neighborliness” in our tradition that involves “shared resources, inclusive politics, random acts of hospitality, and intentional acts of justice.”[1] It is fearless neighborliness that calls Jesus to cross a border this morning and make himself available to the souls he meets in a new land. And I think “fearless neighborliness” is a very good way of talking about what it means for us when we promise to “take up Christ’s mission around the world, striving for justice and peace.”

At a time when our nation’s leaders are screaming for bigger walls and ruthless border patrols, I can’t think of anything more important to talk about than the practice—the spiritual practice—of  “fearless neighborliness.”

So this morning, I’ve invited the Mulder family to talk with us about their own experiences of neighborliness, far and near. Chad, Jodi,  Levi, and Judah have done a lot of traveling in this spirit of neighborliness, and they’ve also arranged a trip this summer that will help us all to practice crossing borders in the name of love. So I want to invite all the Mulders up here to talk with us a bit…

(Peace United Church of Christ is going on an intergenerational mission trip to Tecate, Mexico, this summer. You can find out more about the trip here: http://www.peaceunited.org/service-trip)

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent, Westminster Knox Press, 2016.

You Are the Light of the World

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a meditation on Matthew 15 and A Course in Miracles, Lesson 62

Peace United Church of Christ

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Last Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of Candlemas, which is the moment in the church the year when we affirm that the Light of the World has arrived. We talked about how Jesus came to be called the Light of the World, and about that surprising moment in his sermon on the mount when Jesus turns the tables and tells all of us that in fact, it’s we who are called to be the Light of the World; called to carry the spark of God, the light of our souls, into a world that needs our care.

This morning, I want to invite us to delve a bit deeper into this very important idea that we are called to carry the light of God—the presence of God—into the world, during what may feel like a particularly painful and chaotic time. And to do that, I’d like to extend our exploration into what might be considered the far reaches of Christian tradition, to the text known as A Course in Miracles. As many of you probably know, A Course in Miracles was first published in 1975, by a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University named Dr. Helen Schucman. Dr. Schucman’s experience was that she received the text of A Course in Miracles by dictation directly from Jesus. Some of us may find this idea to be a little bit out of our comfort zone, and I’ll include myself in that group. But as folks who are committed to the belief that “God is still speaking,” I think it’s not a bad idea for us to keep an open mind about how, and to whom, God might speak!

The reason I want to take a look at A Course in Miracles today is that this particular text has a lot to say about what it means for us to be the Light of the World. And the instruction it gives is very, very clear: the key to becoming the Light of the World is forgiveness. According to A Course in Miracles, forgiveness, in fact, is our entire function as the Light of the World. It doesn’t get much clearer than that!

It seems to me that this aligns very well with the picture of Jesus we get from many, many gospel stories. Right off the top of your head, I bet you can name a bunch of stories in which Jesus forgives somebody, maybe even someone who doesn’t seem to deserve it.

There are lots and lots of stories about forgiveness in the gospels. And yet, it seems that just maybe, at a certain point in history, say 1975, the still-speaking God noticed that we humans weren’t quite getting the forgiveness message, and that we needed a refresher course. So Jesus gets very, very specific:

Forgiveness is our function as the Light of the World. (A Course in Miracles, Lesson 62)

And if this is true, if forgiveness is what Jesus is always showing us, always calling us embody, then I think it’s worth our while to get very clear about what forgiveness is, and what it is not.

Psychologists, including Fred Luskin, who heads the Forgiveness Project at Stanford University, generally agree that forgiveness is a conscious decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed us, regardless of whether or not we think they deserve to be forgiven. A conscious decision – what we might call a spiritual practice – to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward the one who has done harm.

Sounds like Jesus, right? Forgiveness is not about who deserves to be forgiven or not. Forgiveness is simply a decision to release our resentment. It doesn’t mean that we don’t feel anger or grief or loss. In the gospels, we can see Jesus feeling these very human, very real emotions, just as we do. Forgiveness does mean that even as we feel our legitimate anger and sorrow and grief—even so, we decide to free ourselves of the resentment that tends to build up when people don’t behave the way we think they should. In other words, forgiveness as spiritual practice changes us. By freeing us of resentment, forgiveness enables us to be as Jesus asks us to be: clear vessels, clear channels, for receiving, and freely sharing, God’s healing light and love.

One way to think about this Light of the World business is to imagine that every human being is a kind of glass lantern, each one of us with the flame of God inside our souls. The thing about Jesus is that everyone could see this flame shining out from him wherever he went. People saw Jesus and suddenly felt bathed in the light, in the presence, of God. I think this is because Jesus is an exceptionally clear lantern. There is no spiritual gunk on the lantern that Jesus is. And so, Jesus is able to walk through the world shining God’s healing, God’s blessing, God’s unconditional love, on every person and every situation he meets.

The rest of us lanterns are also meant to shine God’s light, but we tend to be a little sooty, in need of cleaning. And the thing that clouds up the glass of our lanterns, the thing that prevents us from freely shining as the Light of the World…that thing is resentment. Resentment gets in the way when we try to follow Jesus. You can’t shine your light, Jesus says – your God-given light—unless you take up a spiritual practice, a cleansing practice, of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the Windex that clears us to fully receive the light, the presence, of God, and then to shine it back, freely and without reserve, as we like to say, into the world.

It’s important to be very clear here. Forgiveness is not about ignoring harmful behavior or condoning injustice. Just as Jesus does, we still have to stand up to bullies; we still have to speak truth to power; we still have to defend the most vulnerable among us. Forgiveness does not exempt us from these responsibilities. Forgiveness, however, refuses to resent or condemn or seek vengeance upon the one who has offended us.

Here’s what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. has to say on the topic. He writes: “Here (then) is the Christian weapon against social evil. We are to go out with the spirit of forgiveness, heal the hurts, right the wrongs and change society with forgiveness.”[i]

“The Christian weapon against social evil.” Have you been looking for one of those lately? I sure have. Apparently, we already have one! It might not be the weapon we had in mind, but that’s Jesus for you. If we are to be peacemakers, if we are called to be healers in our own time, it will not be enough, Jesus says, to attend demonstrations. It will not be enough, Dr. King tells us, to write letters and make phone calls. In a nation that is deeply divided, in a world that is crying out for healing, we are called to walk out carrying the light of forgiveness in our hearts.

I don’t know about you, but for me these days, that’s taking a lot of practice. And as with any spiritual practice, there are many paths—many ways to practice forgiveness. I want to suggest that you experiment to find the forgiveness practice that works best for your own heart. Because spiritual practice is never one-size-fits-all. I’ve brought a few of books, which you are welcome to take home with you, if you like. This morning, I want to offer you a practice that has been very helpful to me as I’ve struggled to forgive. It involves a truth that Parker Palmer, one of my heroes, states this way:

“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

And by “violence” he means any kind of harm we do to ourselves or others.

As we make our way into a time of prayer this morning, if you’re willing, I invite you to give this practice a try. You might begin by calling to mind someone who has done something you resent. Someone you’re finding hard to forgive. When you’ve called this person to mind, see if you can imagine that what this person has done is the only thing they knew to do with their suffering. A suffering we may not be able to see on the surface, but that is born of deep, unmet needs. This was the only way they knew, in their suffering, to get those needs met. There’s no need for you to condone or approve of their action. Just see if holding this person’s hidden suffering in your heart helps you let go of some resentment, and leaves the glass of your lantern a little clearer, a little freer to shine, and to love…

And so…we hold in our hearts, O God, all those who have wronged us, knowingly or unknowingly. And we ask that you might teach us the mighty art of forgiveness. Amen.

[i] http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol06Scans/1948-1954TheMeaningofForgiveness.pdf

Never Again

A reflection on Lamentations 1:1-11 for a nuclear age

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If you’re anything like me, it’s probably been a while since you’ve cracked the book of Lamentations. It’s definitely not the cheeriest part of the Bible to dip into. The poems that make up the book of Lamentations were written in the midst of Israel’s enormous grief after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 586 BCE. That’s the year when the Temple – the beautiful, sacred, dwelling place of God on earth – was destroyed, and Israel was taken into exile in Babylon. It can be hard for us to imagine this kind of grief; to imagine what it might feel like to lose not only your homeland and your freedom, but also the most holy place you know—the place where generations of your people have come to worship God.

The outpouring of grief we find here does not make for easy or comforting reading. In fact, what the book of Lamentations describes is a nightmare. Maybe every nation’s worst nightmare: its people killed or taken captive; it’s holy city reduced to ashes.

But it was the practice of our spiritual ancestors, long after the nightmare was over, long after they returned to their land and rebuilt the Temple—it was the spiritual practice of our ancestors to read aloud, in worship, these desperate, grieving passages from the book of Lamentations every year at this time, on the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction. In some communities, this is in fact still the practice.

And the reason for this is that just like the Big Friendly Giant, our ancestors, reading these poems and cries of lament year after year—our ancestors understood the value of a nightmare. Especially, the kind of nightmare that says, “Look what we have done. Can there be any forgiveness?”

Now, at first glance, it might seem that Israel, taken into captivity in Babylon, is simply the victim here. The victim of a hungry Babylonian empire that was devouring other nations left and right.

But that’s not really the way our ancestors saw their predicament. As our ancestors understood it, God’s people played a crucial role in the destruction of the Temple and the loss of their land. The people who wrote these laments understood that they were in deep covenant with God, and that this covenant had been broken. God offers Israel the gift of a good land, the gift of sovereignty, the gift of freedom—and in return, God expects the people to live a certain way. In return for this great gift of freedom and land, God expects the people to do justice, to care for the poor, to elect wise and just leaders, and to take care of the land. The gifts of God come with obligations. And when God’s people fail to meet these obligations, they forfeit the gift.

And so here in the book of Lamentations we find the people of God coming face to face with their worst nightmare. “Look what we has done,” as the BFG might put it. “Look what has befallen us because of what we have done.” This is the worst nightmare the people of God can imagine: to come face to face with the harm they themselves have done; to realize that by their own actions, their own broken covenant with God, they have caused so much suffering. And they are not sure whether, or when, healing might be possible. Look what we have done, says the book of Lamentations. Our worst nightmare has happened and we don’t know—we don’t know—if God will forgive us.

I want to pause here for a word about nightmares. For a long time – all my adult life, really – the study of dreams and dream work has been one of my most important spiritual practices. And I have come to believe that one of the most helpful ways to look at this sometimes perplexing book we call the Bible is to see it as our collective dream. A dream that offers us beautiful visions of healing and wholeness. And also dream that reflects back to us our worst nightmares: Look what we have done. Look, says our collective nightmare. Look at the great harm we humans inflict on ourselves, on one another, and on the earth.

But here’s the thing I’ve come to understand about nightmares. A nightmare does not come to do us harm. A nightmare always comes to wake us up. The purpose of a nightmare is to scare us enough to get our attention; to scare us enough to pay attention to something urgent—something we’ve been ignoring or burying underground. Something that needs our attention before it’s too late.

And so the people of Israel, our spiritual ancestors, wrote down this terrible nightmare about the destruction of everything they loved, and they made it a practice— an annual spiritual practice—to read it aloud, to read these nightmare passages from the book of Lamentations aloud every year, in public. So that they might wake up. So that they might wake up and say to one another: Look at what we did. Look what happened when we broke our covenant with the God of Life. Let’s stay awake this time. they say. Let’s be sure we never let it happen again.

This is a very difficult spiritual practice: to publicly, collectively, as a people, as a nation, tell the story of the harm we have done. We don’t like to do this. We avoid it when we can.

And yet, the deep wisdom of our tradition says that this is a crucial spiritual practice for us. If we seek to be the blessing God calls us to be, our tradition invites us to make this a regular spiritual practice – not for the purpose of guilt or self-flagellation, but to make sure we stay awake. Awake to the power we humans have to do great harm. Awake to the harm we might do again if we fall asleep at the wheel of our lives, or the wheel of the world.

This season, in just two weeks, we here in the United States have an opportunity. I want to say that it’s a spiritual opportunity: to undertake this practice of facing together some of the harm we have done. Coming up on August 6th and August 9th are the anniversaries of the days when American pilots opened the hatches of their planes and dropped two atomic bombs on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan – killing more than 200,000 people, most of them civilians, and ushering all of us, forever, into the age of atomic warfare: a nightmare from which the community of creation has yet to awaken.

If we come to this anniversary as we often do, from a purely secular point of view, we might reflect on the complexity of a world war and its casualties; we might tally up lives lost on both sides and weigh the awful decisions that had to be made. And this, as always, is a worthwhile thing to do.

But if we come to this anniversary as people of faith, as people of God, I think we have an additional bit of work to do. Our tradition tells us that as people who are called to be a blessing, who are called to be peacemakers, we are also called to look squarely at this human-made nightmare and make sure that it wakes us up, every single year.

Because unlike Babylon’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the destructive power of our own nuclear arsenal is not a thing of the distant past. We don’t talk about it a lot these days, but it lies, literally, just beneath the surface of our lives, just beneath the surface of our cornfields and our amber waves of grain. And there is real danger that as nation, we might fall asleep, that we might forget the sheer destructive force that lies at the fingertips of our leaders. And there is a real chance that if we fall asleep to this danger, we will tip the world into a nightmare from which there will be no waking.

I want to suggest that as people of faith, it’s our job—it’s our holy vocation— to practice a collective prayer of confession at this season. To look squarely at the harm we have done; to ask forgiveness for any suffering we have caused; and by our example, to invite the world to do the same. That’s what a nation of peacemakers would do. This does not mean that we alone are responsible for the outcome of WWII or any other war; it does not mean that we value one life more than another. It simply means that we are called to confess, as we do right here every week, any harm we have done, and to do everything in our power to ensure that it never happens again.

Look, say the ancestors. Nightmares happen. They happen when we knowingly or unknowingly inflict unimaginable harm on ourselves and others. What redeems the nightmare is our willingness to look it squarely in the eye and wake up. What redeems the nightmare is our willingness to say, Look what we have done. God help us. God forgive us. God, help us promise our children that this will never happen again.

I want to propose that we undertake this spiritual practice together this year, for ourselves, for the world, and for the kids who need to hear that we’re on top of this—that we are doing everything we can to make the world a safer place. I want to propose that we take a cue from our spiritual ancestors and use this anniversary, these next two weeks, as a call to lament, a call to wake up, and a call to peace.

We made a start this past Friday night: I sent our kids home from our Fourth-Friday dinner with origami paper, and they’re at work making paper cranes of peace. You can do the same if you like: there’s origami paper in the narthex, and this week, I’ll email you links to YouTube videos that will show you how to fold paper cranes of your own. Over the next two weeks, I’m going to do my best to help parents find ways to talk with their kids about what those peace cranes stand for, and about how we might spend the next two weeks in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Japan as we remember together the events of the summer1945, and as we pledge ourselves to peace together. And then, on August 7th during our all-ages worship, we’ll gather up and bless those cranes; we’ll talk about how they came to be a symbol of healing and peace; and we’ll rededicate ourselves to the work of that healing.

This is humbling work. It is difficult work. And it seems to be unpopular work these days. But it is the holy work of the peacemaking people we are called to be. And I’m pretty sure the ancestors are praying we’ll do it. Don’t be afraid, they whisper. We’ll be with you, and so will the God who has made you for peace.

 

 

 

Water From the Rock

A reflection on Exodus 17:1-7 for a dry and desperate summer

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It’s quite a scene that takes place out on the rock at Mt. Horeb this morning. A rock that might have remained anonymous were it not for the fact that Moses decides, at the end of a really long day, to name that place “Massah and Meribah.” Which translates pretty well as “Testing and Quarreling.”

Imagine for a moment that you are Moses. You’ve just struck the rock with your staff, and all of a sudden—clear, miraculous water has come pouring out. All God’s thirsty people are leaping for joy. You, Moses, are wiping your brow because it looks like the people aren’t going to stone you after all! And now it’s time for you to name the place where this great miracle has happened. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would have named it “Testing and Quarreling.” I think I would have been tempted to name it something like: “Water from the rock!” Or, “Look what God has done!” Or maybe, “Yay! We’re not thirsty anymore!”

But Moses doesn’t pick any of these names. Instead, Moses names that place “Massah and Meribah.” “Testing and Quarreling.” This is something like instead of celebrating the anniversary of our joyful wedding day, we decided that every year, we would go out to dinner to commemorate the anniversary of the worst fight we ever had. You know the one. The quarrel we thought our marriage would not survive. Imagine writing down that date and going out to commemorate it every year. We don’t do this! We don’t choose to commemorate our most terrifying times. We tend to name and celebrate the joyful, triumphant moments of our lives: the first day on a new job, the day a child is born. But the times of testing, and quarreling, and crying out to God that came before those moments of triumph? The long months or years of unemployment and despair? The long hours of almost unbearable pain in labor? We don’t throw a party every year to celebrate those. We forget those times as soon as new life begins to arrive.

But here’s Moses, watching his people splashing around in the miraculous spring of water, and he decides to name this the place of Testing and Quarreling. “Look, here it is,” the people will say in years to come. “The place we where we almost stoned Moses!” “Check it out!” they’ll say. “Here’s the very place where we actually wished we were slaves again in Egypt. Remember?” This is the place where we wondered out loud if God was with us or not. The place we named after our testing, our quarreling, our despair—as if those things were holy. As if they deserved to be remembered for all time.

Sounds a little crazy. But I want to think about this for a minute, here in this summer of our own testing, this summer of our collective quarreling and despair. Just in case maybe Moses knew what he was doing out there on that rock.

What if somebody wrote down this story of testing and quarreling because they knew we might need it? What if our spiritual ancestors knew that one day, we too would come to a dry and thirsty time. A summer of dry and burning forests; a summer when we would be so thirsty for justice, so tired of wandering in circles of old arguments and cynical politicians that even slavery in Egypt—where at least everybody had a roof over their head and three meals a day—even slavery in Egypt doesn’t sound that much worse than a corrupt democracy where the rich get richer and the poor go to bed hungry every night.

Maybe our ancestors knew we’d come to this summer when God’s people would gather for a protest on the streets of Dallas, just like they gathered in the desert, crying out to God: “Do our lives matter, or not?” Crying out, “Is the Lord with us, or not?” Only this time, instead of clear water, the only thing that flowed was more blood.

Here’s what I think. I think our spiritual ancestors knew a thing or two about despair when they wrote down this story. Those people out there in the wilderness were at the end of their collective rope when they cried out to God. Those people knew a thing or two about wandering in the desert of despair for so long that you forget what hope looks like, what it tastes like. And I think they knew that one day, we’d need to hear the story of what happened to them in their hour of deep despair. They knew we’d need a story that says, “Even now, even here in this place that you think is God-forsaken, in this terrible time when you’re beginning to wonder if even God can turn back the tide of greed and fear and despair—“Even now,” the ancestors whisper. “Even now, the waters of God’s healing are beginning to flow. Maybe you can’t see them yet because they are still deep beneath the rock. But trust us,” they say. “Even now, the healing waters are rising, and they will flow again.”

What our ancestors knew that it’s not only water we need in a thirsty time. We need the right story. A healing story. When you’re in the middle of a desert time, when the whole broken, suffering world seems to be crying out, “Is the Lord with us, or not?” this is precisely the kind of story that can save your life. It might even be the kind of story that can save the world.

Look. Everywhere you turn, you will find a story. Every headline, every news feed, every neighbor is telling a story—about what is possible, about what is hopeless, about who is hopeless. The power we have—the God-given power that no one can take from us—is the power to decide which story we will live our way into, starting today. And you can bet your life that if we fail to choose our own story—if we fail to choose the story we live into—you can bet that Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and the tabloid press and every power-hungry maniac with a microphone will be more than happy to choose our story for us and feed that story to us sound byte by sound byte.

It’s up to us now to decide whether we’re going to keep on swallowing, and retelling, a story of despair. A story of, “There’s nothing we can do.” What would happen if we pledged, right now, to start telling a story of wild hope, a story of almost unimaginable healing and grace springing from the hard rock of this desperate summer?

I think you already know the story the world needs. I think you already have that story in you. I’m pretty sure that if you look back over your own life, you’ll find your own story of a desperate, desert time. Maybe it was a time in your own life when you thought you could not take another thirsty step. Maybe it was a time in the life of community you loved, a community that was fighting for justice. Maybe you were there, carrying signs and singing freedom songs. In fact, I know you were there, because I’ve seen your photographs, and I’ve heard your stories—like the one about the time you went out to the hot, dusty fields to stand in solidarity with the ones who were picking grapes for your table. I bet you have a story about marching arm in arm with your sisters and brothers through dangerous streets, when you were not at all sure you would survive. I bet you have a story of a time in your life, a time in the life of the people you love, when right there, in the midst of your despair, the waters of change, the waters of new life, began to flow again.

That, my friends, is the story the world needs to hear from you right now. It’s the story your children and your grandchildren need to hear from you as you watch the news together this summer. It’s the story the people of Dallas and Minneapolis and Orlando need from us this summer: a story about how you came through your own time of Testing and Quarreling; a story about your own beloved community’s moment of despair. A story about how badly you wanted to just give up and go home but then somebody in desperation picked up a stick and struck the asphalt and somebody else struck a note on a guitar and a song, a freedom song, came gushing out like water from the rock. That’s the story you need to tell: your own story of wild, determined, crazy hope.

Maybe the most hopeful, radical thing you can do this summer is to tell the story of your own testing. Maybe the most healing thing you can do this summer is to find a way—pick up the phone, write a song, start a blog—find a way to tell a story of wild hope to somebody who is dying of thirst, somebody who even now is crying out, “Is the Lord with us or not?” That person needs to hear your story of a time when you were tested. That person needs to hear you say, “The Lord was with me in that terrible, lonely place, and that’s how I know the Lord is with you, too. And so am I.”

And if it turns out that right now, you are the one who is thirsting for a new story, I hope you’ll look around the room today and ask your friends for a story that will quench your thirst. And if you find this week that your own spring of hope is running dry, I encourage you to look just a little farther than the easy headlines that come at you all day long. In desperate times, it matters—it matters a lot—which stories we feed ourselves and our kids every day. I don’t believe we can afford any longer to feast on poisonous stories of despair. So if you need a nourishing story, I brought you a stack of them this morning. Do you read this? It’s Yes! Magazine and It’s a beautiful thing, filled with stories of hope, stories of restorative justice. You can pick up a copy and take it home, you read it online if you want, you can share it with the kids you love. Because our kids are looking to us to know what kind of story we will live, what kind of people we will become, in our own time of Testing and Quarreling.

Friends, there’s an aching world out there, longing for hope, thirsting for healing this summer. And I’m pretty sure that as we grope together for a way forward, as we let our hearts break again and again, we’re going to need stories to save us. Holy stories of our own testing, stories of the times we cried out Is God with us or not? Stories of how we came to answer a resounding Yes! Stories of how we found the courage, and the songs, and the friends, that kept us going until the waters began to flow.

I invite you to join me in prayer…

Holy One, as we hold in our hearts the world that you so love, we thank you for bringing us through our dry and dusty times. We thank you for the courage of our ancestors and for the stories of new life that sustain us. And we pray, O God, that you will teach us, as you taught those who have gone before us, to speak truth to power; to speak hope in a time of despair. Give us the words, God, to guide your people through this desert time. May the stories of our lives, the stories of Your love, and the stories of our most difficult, holy places, become living water for a thirsting world. Amen.

The Ravens Will Feed You

A reflection on 1 Kings 17:1-6 for the 26th of June, 2016

raven.jpg

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there arose a king whose name was Ahab. You can read about him if you want to, in the Bible, in the first book of Kings. If you go there, you will read about a long line of kings who ruled over the people of God, and you will read about how each of them did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. A long line of kings who forgot what Lord requires of them, and of us: to do justice, to love mercy, to care for the earth and to share its bounty with all who are in need. If you go to the book of Kings you will read about long line of rulers who led the people away from the ways of God. And when you get to the story about King Ahab, here’s what it says: “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.”

That’s no small feat. By the time King Ahab ascends to the throne, the Lord, the God of infinite mercy, is pretty much fed up with the ones who call themselves king. And so it came to pass that during the reign of King Ahab, the Lord sent for a man of God named Elijah. And God sent Elijah to warn Ahab, saying, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”

And so the people of God came upon hard times. The land, the beautiful and sacred land that had always nourished them, became parched and dusty. One by one, rivers and springs began to dry up. Plants and animals began to die of hunger and thirst

And the Lord said to Elijah: “Go. Take yourself to the Wadi Cherith, where the waters still flow. You will drink from the wadi,” says the Lord. “And I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”

I want to stop right there for a moment. Ravens! In the book of Kings, the author does not tell us what was going through Elijah’s mind at that moment. We never learn whether Elijah thought this was a completely crazy assignment: the fields are drying up, the crops are failing, and the people are about to starve, and God, instead of telling Elijah what in the world to do about it, sends him out on a camping trip, to be fed by ravens.

But Elijah obeys. He takes himself to the Wadi Cherith, and there he drinks the clear water. And when evening falls and he grows hungry, ravens arrive as promised, bringing him bread and meat.

I wonder if we can imagine that moment. Our there all alone in the wilderness, where he might easily have starved, Elijah finds himself blessed in his loneliness by the arrival of the ravens. And there, brushed by their wings, blessed by the sudden communion they share, Elijah hears the call of God, and understands what he must do to save the people he loves.

And so it came to pass, many, many centuries later, that the people once again forgot the ways of the Lord. The people once again, along with their rulers, forgot what the Lord requires of them: to do justice to all creatures, to love mercy, to care for the earth and share it’s bounty with all. And after many, many generations had forgotten the ways of the Lord, there came a summer that the people would never forget. Some called it the summer of their despair. As that summer arrived, the ice caps were melting. As that summer arrived, refugees were taking to tiny, leaky boats in search of life, and hope, only to be turned away at the shore. As that fateful summer arrived, the streets of Paris and West Virginia were flooded with torrential rains and the streets of Orlando were flooded with blood and tears. As that summer arrived, wildfires burned along the highways and the people drove to work in lines of creeping lines of traffic, listening to news reports about record-breaking heat: 121 degrees in Palm Springs where people are dying because they have no shelter, no water, no wadi from which to drink. And the people cried out in their despair. And all over the world, the people wondered if it was too late to change their ways.

But maybe you know by now that in every age, in times of deepest despair, prophets arise. Men and women and children who come when our hearts are burning with regret and fear, prophets who come to lead us back to ways of righteousness and peace.

And so in that summer—this summer—there arose an unlikely prophet. Maybe you’ve heard his name in the past week or two. If you are in the habit of wandering through bookstores or reading book reviews, you’ve probably heard the name of Charles Foster, who is the author of a remarkable book called Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide.

And if you think Elijah dining with ravens is a little weird, all I can do is urge you to pick up a copy of this book and let Charles Foster tell you about the years he has spent, and the truly astonishing lengths to which he has gone, to see if it might be possible to bridge the abyss between the human and the animal worlds.

In the hands and words of someone less reflective, less spiritually attuned, this would come off as something of a stunt, a gimmick to sell a lot of books. But in the hands and the heart of Charles Foster, it reads like a recipe for healing a desperate world. It reads like something Elijah himself might have written, like a recipe for restoring us to the communion, to the covenant, we have broken—with God, and with the world God loves.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this summer, a book about a man who is desperate to learn what it feels like to be an otter—a man who is willing to catch raw fish with his teeth just to feel what it is to be an otter—I don’t think it’s a coincidence that here in this summer of our despair, a book about a man who is desperate to lead us all back into radical communion with the animal world is a runaway bestseller.

Because what Charles Foster learns out there in the freezing river with the otters, what Elijah learns out there at the wadi with the ravens, is that restoring our broken communion with the wild ones has everything to do with healing the world. If sin is in fact separation—from God, from one another, and from the world—then the antidote to sin, the antidote to the despair that ails us, is reconnection. And in our tradition, that reconnection happens again and again in the wilderness: in the place where we meet the God whose Spirit arrives on the beat of raven wings; the God who mourns the death of every sparrow.

Look. I don’t think we can really argue about whether or not we’ve gone astray. I have yet to meet anyone who thinks the world is on the right path or who thinks that the way we humans are living is pleasing to the God who made the world and calls it good.

Since the beginning of time, humanity’s sin has been to imagine that we can plunder, ignore, and destroy the wild lives around us without destroying ourselves. And this illusion of our separateness, the illusion of our independence, has now brought us to the brink of worldwide ecological collapse.

And the question for people of faith is whether our tradition offers anything that might save us, anything that might help us change our ways before it’s too late. What might it take for us to shift out of a King Ahab mindset of exploitation and domination—over earth, over other creatures, over other peoples—and into an awareness of our interdependence with all of life? The question has become urgent this summer. And I think we’ll need to explore every possible answer, and take every available path, to transform human consciousness before it’s too late.

But I also believe that our sacred texts, particularly our prophets, point to a very specific spiritual path to human transformation. A path that leads directly into the wilderness and to the restoration of our deep communion with wild creatures as crucial, not only for the physical health of the planet, but for the transformation of human consciousness as well—a transformation that is essential if we are to pull ourselves and each other back from the brink of destruction.

What does the Lord require of us, here in this summer of our despair? Go, says the Lord. The ravens will feed you. The ravens, even now, will teach you all you need to know.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be a raven. Maybe it doesn’t even have to be a bird. If you want, you can take the lead of Charles Foster and tunnel into a hillside with a badger or follow a fox through the alleys of the night. But I am sure—every day now I am more sure—that we humans cannot do this alone. That the God who mourns every fallen sparrow has created us for deep communion with the world God loves; that God has created us for deep and healing communion with the wild ones God loves. Every day, I am more convinced that our salvation, now as ever, depends on restoring the communion, the covenant, the deep relationship we have broken with all of creation.

Maybe you’re not sure you can find a week to follow Elijah into the wilderness to listen for what God is calling you to do this summer. Maybe you’re not sure you’re ready to follow Charles Foster and the otters into the river to catch fish with your teeth.

But right here, today, you can step outside and begin a spiritual practice of restoring communion with the wild ones – the winged ones whose feathers, even now, are brushing, and blessing, the air that fills your lungs and keeps you alive.

The past few Sunday mornings at 9:00, a group of us has been walking down to Westlake Pond to practice sacred seeing, and sacred listening, with the winged ones. In October we’ll be doing something similar at 9am: we’ll be going out with cameras to engage in sacred seeing as spiritual practice, as a way to restore our relationship with the world. I hope you’ll plan to join us.

And I hope that in the weeks ahead, as this summer unfolds and simmers, as the world’s despair creeps into your heart now and then, as we wonder what it might take to change our ways—I hope you’ll find a place to listen for the God who calls to you, even now, with the brush of arriving wings.

Look, says the poet Mary Oliver, prophet for this summer of our despair:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

(Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”)

Call of the Wild Goose

A reflection on the season of Pentecost, June 12, 2016

 

geese

I wonder if you can picture the scene at the Jordan River on the morning when Jesus arrives and asks his cousin John to baptize him. What do you see when you imagine this scene? Is it something from a painting? Maybe a stained-glass window? What’s going on in the sky? Maybe the sky itself is breaking open and the God rays of the sun coming down and the Holy Spirit appearing as a gigantic dove. This is one way we tend to imagine the Holy Spirit.

But perhaps your image of the Holy Spirit comes from the book of Acts: a large crowed is gathered in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit blows into the room, and no one quite agrees about how to describe it. “It was a rush of wind!” somebody says. “No, no—it was fire!” someone else says. “I saw little tongues of flame on top of everybody’s head!”

As long as human beings have been trying to talk about the presence and action of God in the world, we’ve never been able to agree on just one image, one word, to describe our experience of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it feels like a rushing wind. Sometimes it looks like tongues of fire. Sometimes, as in the book of Matthew, the Holy Spirit is a dove.

And that’s not even the whole list. My own favorite image of the Holy Spirit comes from the Celtic Christians of Britain and Ireland, who experienced the Holy Spirit as a wild goose: a wild, untamable bird that lands with a splash and takes off again whenever it pleases, flapping and honking and calling us to follow if we dare—a bird that knows about wide-open spaces and long journeys to faraway lands; the kind of bird who just might have something to teach us about what it means to be on a wild, unpredictable adventure with God.

A spirit like this can take you some unexpected places. Talking about following a spirit like this can make a person sound a little crazy, or reckless. Which doesn’t always set too well with some of us, rational, logical folks who like to hang out in UCC congregations. We like to be able to explain things. We like to know where we’re going how we’re going to get there. We aren’t the kind of people who sit around waiting for God to fix the world with a miracle; we jump in and get to work! And so we pay a lot of attention to the first and second persons of the Trinity: God the creator who calls us to justice and love; and God the Christ who embodies that love by walking out into a broken world and calling us to do the same. And these are not small things. We take them very seriously, these first two persons of the Trinity. We love them and we follow them with everything we’ve got. And maybe that ought to be enough.

But then…here comes this long, summer season of Pentecost, when we are asked to remember the story of the birth of the church – a church that is not born, that doesn’t even exist, until this moment when the Holy Spirit shows up. Pentecost says that the church does not actually begin its life until this mysterious third person of the Trinity comes swooping out of the sky.

This, says the season of Pentecost, is what it means to be the Church: to be willing to let God astonish us with possibilities that we have never even dreamed of. To let the wild Spirit of God carry us to places we ourselves have never dreamed of. Why? Because, just like those first disciples of Jesus, without God’s wild, Holy Spirit, we can get a little too comfortable with our own ideas about what is possible and what is not.

Without the Holy Spirit, we human beings can start to live like domesticated chickens: happy to peck around for seed in our cozy yard; content to be shooed back into our safe coop at night. Pentecost says that until the Holy Spirit arrives, a community is not a church; it’s more like a chicken coop: a safe, familiar way of life, where the only possibilities we can imagine are the ones we already know about.

And so, at this season—one that just happens to coincide with the season of our congregation’s annual meeting, the moment when we gather as a church body to decide how we will use our resources, how we will share our gifts, how we will follow God’s call into the world—right here in this season, when we ask ourselves what it means to be the church, we are also asked to consider again this strange story about how a bunch of people were gathered at the river one morning, gathered in a room one day, when the Holy Spirit arrived and blew the roof of possibility clear off the place.

Today, on this Sunday of our annual meeting, I wonder if we might want to ask ourselves whether the roof still off. Okay, I don’t mean literally off – the building and grounds committee is doing a great job of keeping the roof on. What I mean to ask is this: Is the church still the kind of place where the wild goose of God looks down and finds a place to land? Or have we steadily, maybe even unintentionally, been sealing up our windows and the doors? Has the church become a place where we come to make our lives, and our world, more predictable? Or is church still the wild, astonishing place it was in those early days—a wide-open clearing where we stand together every week and help each other find the courage to let God’s Holy Spirit take us where it will? When was the last time we walked into church and found ourselves, like those early disciples, completely astonished by what God can do?

I’m pretty sure we are not the church God calls us to be unless the Holy Spirit comes honking and swooping into our lives on a regular basis, astonishing the holy feathers right off our backs.

Needless, to say, this is not always a comfortable experience. Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor says that in her experience, the Holy Spirit feels nothing the gentle dove in those famous paintings of Jesus’ baptism. She says that when the Holy Spirit arrives in her life, she feels as if a hawk has clamped its talons into her scalp and is lifting her off the ground. Scary! And uncomfortable. And risky, to say the least. So why would any sane person—why would any sane church—want to call that wild spirit in?

Because the way of the Holy Spirit is precisely the way of limitless hope: the hope of the Hebrew prophets; the hope of God for all the world—slaves and free, women and men. A wild, expansive, liberating realm of new possibility. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: We have a call, he says, “a stunning vocation, to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful…and to think, imagine, dream, vision a future that God will yet enact.”

To stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful. If that’s not a bumper sticker for this season, I don’t know what is. What Pentecost says is that we cannot inhabit that hope-filled freedom—for ourselves, for our children, for the world—unless we clear a space for God to break us wide open and act on us in ways we have never even imagined.

This is not easy thing to do. I don’t know about you, but I like my cozy little coop—it took me a long time to build it, and most days, I’m not totally sure I want God to blow the roof off the place. Besides, haven’t we been taught to be skeptical and practical? Haven’t we been warned all our lives to beware of the wild goose chase? That’s our code word for wasting time, for being bamboozled, for being conned into hope—duped into following an impossible dream.

But what if breaking our lives open to God isn’t a wild goose chase after all? What if, in fact, it’s the wild goose that’s been chasing us all along? What if the holy, wild spirit of God is calling to us right now, longing to be invited to land in the middle of our life together, longing to break our hearts wide open to unimagined possibility?

Here we are, in the midst of this long season of the Pentecost, and I wonder if together, we might decide to make this a season of the Holy Spirit. How might we make enough clear, open space in our life together—in our worship, in our meetings, in our conversations—for that wild goose to touch down among us? What practices help us to become a wide-open space where the Spirit can land? What habits and comforts are keeping us closed? How might we help one another, and the world, listen for the surprising call of the still-speaking God?

I’m pretty sure that the Holy Spirit—God’s own wild, beautiful goose—is calling, even now. Calling to you, and to me, and to the Church that was founded that long-ago day so that it might carry God’s own wild hope for the world.

My prayer for us this season is that together, we will clear a space for the wild goose to land among us. That we will spend these long summer days together watching that goose very carefully—finding ways to feed it; finding ways to listen for its soft murmurings and loud honkings. So that when that wild spirit gets restless and signals to us that it’s time to fly again—when that day comes, we will answer with a holy YES, even if we have no idea in the world where that bird might take us. I hope you’ll stay with us after worship today as we wander over to the Fellowship Hall to listen for the call of that Spirit together.

Because when we decide to climb onto the back of that beautiful, wild bird—we can be sure that it is into God’s own future that we fly.