Show Me a Sign

Grieving Thomas by Lauren Wright Pittman

a reflection on John 20:19-29 for the season of our grief

All summer long, we have been exploring, in worship, what it means to be “unravelled” by the circumstances of our lives. When I chose this theme, I was thinking, of course, of the ways in which our lives and plans have been unravelled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Little did I know that before summer was out, we would be facing a wildfire season that is devastating our own communities, as well as communities all along the west coast, beyond even our most dire imaginings. 

This is a season in which our own lives, the life of the earth and all her creatures, as well as many of our assumptions about our own nation and the world, seem to be unravelling all at once. And so today, we turn to our friend Thomas, who, in the wake of Jesus’ death, has had his heart shattered and seen his hopes and dreams go up in smoke.

It’s important to remember that when we meet the disciples this morning, their beloved teacher has been executed by a terrorist regime—a regime that very intentionally and publicly crucifies its enemies as a warning to anyone who might be planning disobedience of any kind. This is the reason that Jesus’ friends are hiding out  in a locked room, knowing that any moment now, someone down on the street could point to their window and identify them as followers of Jesus. Any moment now, the police—an armed and dangerous state police force—might come knocking on their door. And so it is that we find them locked in a room together: confused, terrified, and unravelled by grief.

And it is into this room that Jesus suddenly appears, saying “Peace be with you.” Then he shows everybody his wounds. And they see. And believe that he’s really there.

Everybody, that is, except for Thomas, who has the bad luck to be absent on the day when his teacher appears. Of all Jesus’ closest friends, it is Thomas who does not get the benefit of seeing what the other disciples have already seen. When we meet Thomas today, he’s still terrified and traumatized. Most important, Thomas is still heartbroken. When we meet him this morning, Thomas is a guy who has been badly wounded by the loss of the friend he trusted and loved, and by the loss of a dream he cherished. The dream of a better life for himself and for the people he loves.

I have to admit that I find it perplexing that church tradition takes a guy like Thomas and blames him for having so little faith. “Doubting Thomas,” the church calls him. Imagine seeing a man whose life and dreams have been unravelled by the violent execution of his friend and teacher, and blaming that very man for doubting the possibility of new life. It would be like blaming someone who has just lost their home to a raging fire for being afraid to rebuild and trust in life again. 

I find it strange indeed that the church has done exactly this with Thomas. It’s strange because if we look closely at the text, what we see is that Jesus himself doesn’t seem to blame Thomas at all. After all, if Jesus blamed Thomas for his lack of faith, Jesus could have just left him to stew in his own disbelief! Why bother showing up again, just for a guy who has no faith?

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus does. One week later, while the disciples are once again huddled in a locked room, Jesus appears yet again. It’s as if he’s going out of his way to make sure that this time, Thomas will be there to see the wounds that the other disciples have already seen. As if it were the most natural thing in the world to need some evidence before we can believe in resurrection and new life. 

I’m pretty sure that Jesus does understand what Thomas, along with the rest of us, needs to see. Because Jesus, of all people, knows what it feels like to have our hopes and dreams and lives be unravelled by tragedy.  Jesus, whose own ministry of healing and peace was destroyed by a police state determined to cling to its power. Who better, then, to understand Thomas? Who better than the wounded Christ, the Christ of Compassion, to understand that it is Thomas’ own wounds, his own pain and disappointment, that make him afraid to believe again; afraid to believe in new life, in hope, and in the possibility of joy. 

For those of you who can believe without seeing, well, lucky you, Jesus says. You are blessed. But to Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus says: I know it’s hard. I know how hard it is to believe, to trust again after you have been wounded. After your dreams have gone up in flames. To Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus says, I know you need help to trust God again with your wounded heart and your unravelled life. So, I will show I will show youexactly what you need to see.

I suspect that many of us are hesitant this season to even imagine the possibility of new life in the midst of a global pandemic; in the midst of catastrophic climate change and devastating weather; in the midst of the systemic racism and violence against black and brown bodies that screams daily across the headlines. In the midst of fierce wildfires that are raging all across the western states. Beloved, our own trusting souls, our own expansive hearts, have been wounded and unravelled by the traumatic events of this year. And so, even as summer slips into autumn, we too may find ourselves locked in our homes to escape both the virus and the smoke-filled air. We may find ourselves locked in by our own fears, unable to imagine, let alone trust, the possibility of new life for ourselves and for the world. Just like Thomas, we need some help!  We need a visible and reassuring sign that it is safe—and sane—to accept God’s offer of new life even now.

Lucky for us,Thomas, of all the disciples, has the courage to ask for the help he needs. Thomas asks to see for himself. And it is Thomas’ asking—his willingness to name what it is he needs—that seems to call Jesus in for a second visit.

It is often said in the church that the Good News of Jesus Christ is always both: always good and always new. And I wonder if perhaps, like Thomas, there is some part of you that is skeptical about God’s promise of new life. A part of you that might, just like Thomas, be feeling a little afraid. Maybe it’s your grieving heart. Maybe it’s your exhausted soul. I invite you to take a moment now and let that Thomas part of you find its voice. Here in the silence, just listen for the part of you that is wounded, skeptical, and afraid. Just listen and allow this part of you to ask for whatever it might need in order to be willing to trust again. 

Whatever it is that you heard from your doubt this day, I invite you to carry it with you this week. You might even want to look at it every now and then. And maybe, when you look at your own doubt, you might pray, as Thomas did, “Show me. God, show me the sign I need to see.” The sign you need to help you believe in the promise of new life that God is extending  even now, in this long season of our collective unravelling. 

Above all, I invite you to be compassionate with your own doubting self. At least as compassionate as Jesus is with his beloved Thomas, the doubting one. 

Because none of us gets through this life without being wounded. The world has its sharp, jagged edges; the world has its novel viruses and its ancient injustices. These catch us, friends. And when they do, we suffer, and we are afraid. And yet, even as we unravel and reweave the sacred threads of our lives, we are called — we are always called, by the Christ of God — to carry new life into the world. If our friend Thomas is any indication, God is ready, on a moment’s notice, to slip into the locked room of our fear and deliver to us a sign of hope, a sign of new life, if only we will ask.

And so we remember this day that “Show me” is a complete and perfect prayer. And we give thanks to Thomas and to all the faithful friends who teach us how to pray it. Thanks be to God.

Seeing Our Children Whole

Jesus Looked Up  by Hannah Garrity

a reflection on Luke 19:1-10

I wonder how our friend Zaccheus, in his later years, might have told the story of this remarkable day. I wonder if he spent all the rest of his days trying to find words that would capture the delight and astonishment he felt at being seen up there in that tree and singled out by Jesus. Surely his neighbors found themselves telling this story for many years to come. And I am pretty sure that Zaccheus himself was as surprised as anyone by this turn of events. Zaccheus the tax collector: a man who had grown accustomed to being defined by his job; a man who had grown accustomed to being boxed into a category, his uniqueness overshadowed by his social position. Surely, no one is more surprised than Zaccheus himself when Jesus sees him up in that tree and calls him out for a great and unexpected honor.

What is it that Jesus sees in Zaccheus? What potential does Jesus see in this man that others have failed to notice? Somehow, Jesus looks up into that tree and sees this man whole. Somehow, Jesus is able to see beneath the surface of Zaccheus’ life; to look beyond his reputation and his job and see who Zaccheus really is: a unique, irreplaceable child of God. And in that instant, when Zaccheus is truly seen, maybe for the first time, everything unravels for him. Everything he once knew about himself, about his job, about his neighbors’ opinions of him — all of this unravels when he is seen. In that instant, Zaccheus’ old identity falls away, and the truth of his essential self — the self he was created to be — comes down out of the tree for all to see.

This season, as so many of our own identities, customs, and communal practices are unraveling around us, we are looking to our ancient stories for wisdom and support. Here in our ancient texts, we encounter characters who, just like us, find that when their own lives and roles begin to unravel, that very unraveling makes room for God to work in and among them in new and surprising ways. 

If you want to see the surprise and delight on Zaccheus’ face, I think you’ll find both in the painting by Hannah Garrity that depicts today’s gospel story. In this work of creative imagination, the painter invites us to notice how Zaccheus’ face lights up as he sees his true self reflected in Jesus’ loving eyes. And as this painter reflects on the healing power of being seen, she discovers a connection to her own work as a middle school teacher. Here is Hannah Garrity’s own reflection on what happens when her students feel truly seen:

I teach middle school art. I have spent this school year testing the waters. Each day I try a new collection of inputs for various situations. The most effective one is to stop in at every single student’s seat to have a personal conversation with them. In these conversations, I reiterate the assignment, glean information about what the student plans to do, and answer any questions. The byproduct is positive productivity. Is it because I’ve shown that I care? Is it because I’ve clarified the expectations? Is it because I simply acknowledged their existence in the room? Is it because I saw them?  -Hannah Garrity

As I read this teacher’s reflections on the power of being seen, I find myself wondering what her students would say about what happens to them in Ms. Garrity’s classroom. I wonder if, like Zaccheus, they are even now searching for words to describe how it feels to have someone really see them and hear them, not just as a category (“tax collector,” “middle schooler”) but as a unique and uniquely gifted individual.

If you’ve been worshipping with us for a while, you’ll know that here at First Congregational Church, on the first Sunday of the month, we celebrate all-ages worship, keeping our children with us for the entire worship service. It’s part of a very intentional practice in which we create a community where children are seen, and heard, and welcomed as the unique individuals that they are. And I believe that there is no more important work for any church community than to create a place where trusted adults practice seeing every child in their wholeness. A community in which trusted adults see and name and reflect back to our children the unique gifts that each one brings to the world. 

Beloved, as we worship in many different places this first Sunday of the month, I am acutely aware of the fact that our children are sorely missing the weekly gift of seeing and being seen by us. And as we make our way toward the start of the school year, I am praying daily for the teachers and school administrators who are working long hours right now to reimagine what school will look like this fall, in the midst of a global pandemic. I hope you will join me in grateful and loving prayer for all the teachers and educators right here in Salem and all around the country, as they imagine and create so many different kinds of educational experiences for students who have a great diversity of needs.

And, of course, I am praying for parents who may need to decide, very soon, whether returning to school will be the right choice for their children, all of whom have unique and individual health needs, social needs, and educational needs. 

I’d like to suggest that in addition to our prayers, we might also help our parents, teachers, and kids by making a commitment this season to see our children whole. To see them as Jesus sees Zaccheus this day, as the particular souls that they are, each with their own unique gifts to bring to the world. Of course, some of us aren’t able to physically be with the children in our lives in person right now. But what if we can still see them from afar, by really recognizing their essential selves, their unique and irreplaceable gifts and needs? What if our own clear seeing of the children we love might help their parents make crucial choices this season about what is best for their particular children? Whatever else happens in the weeks ahead, there will be new choices to make. Will school be online or in person, or a combination of both? Do I send my children back to school, or would they be safer right now learning at home? And if this child is staying at home, what kind of learning would be best for this unique being who has been entrusted to my care? These are sacred questions, friends. Questions that will help us all, in the months and years ahead, to nurture the souls of all the children in our care and in our communities. 

Over the past few weeks, I have been pondering all these questions with my friend Meredith, who has spent much of her professional life thinking about how to meet the learning needs of children and youth. In the past few weeks, she has created a list of questions that might help us all see the children in our lives more clearly, and help us make decisions about the school year ahead. I want to share these questions with you here, in hopes that you will share them with anyone in your life who is making important decisions about their children’s schooling right now. Whether or not you are involved in making decisions about the school year ahead, I invite you to prayerfully consider these questions, because I believe they are the kinds of questions that can help us see all our children whole…

  • What does your child miss about school? What does she not miss?
  • What do you miss from when your child was in school? What are you relieved to be rid of?
  • Is there anything that has become possible that was not possible before?
  • Is there anything your child has been interested in that there has never been time to explore with them?
  • What is helpful for your child to have in his days?
  • What is important to him?
  • How much physical activity does your child need?
  • How is your child different from you? What do you admire about them?

As Meredith points out, you can consider these questions yourself, and perhaps also invite your child to ponder them as well. This would be fertile ground indeed for conversation with the children in your life. If you’d like to read more about this process of reflection, you can read the full article, “Finding What Matters,” here: https://meredithcollins.link/2020/07/27/findingwhatmatters/

Beloved, I wonder if there is a child in your life who is spending these long summer days in the branches of a tree? What secrets might that tree be whispering to her tree-loving soul? Or maybe, even as you read this, there is a child who is busy wrapping your sofa in kitchen twine. What kind of beauty might his unique artist’s soul be longing to offer the world?

As we make our way from summer into fall, may we watch and listen for who God is calling each of our children to be. May all our children be seen, and known, and abundantly loved into the fullness of their own beautiful souls. Amen.

Her Nightmare, and Ours

Rizpah Mourns Her Sons by Lauren Wright Pittman

For all my adult life, I have been an eager student of dreams. For many years now, I have studied the great dream traditions of the world as well as the practice of interpreting dreams in a way that brings healing and wholeness to our individual and collective lives.  To this day, dreamwork is one of the most important spiritual practices in my own life and in the lives of those who come to me for spiritual direction and guidance. And of all the things I have learned about dreams over the years, none is more important than the spiritual value of nightmares.

That’s right. Nightmares. Just to be clear: I do not enjoy the experience of a nightmare any more than you do. In the midst of a nightmare, I too wake up drenched in sweat, filled with grief and dread and sometimes real terror. But over the years, I have come to understand that every dream comes in the service of wholeness. And if we have been neglecting that wholeness; if we have been ignoring the more subtle, daily messages from our souls, then a nightmare will come to startle us into attentive awareness. If we have been asleep to our own soul’s deep needs or to the needs of our collective soul, then the nightmare will come, like an honest friend, to wake us up.

What’s more, nightmares come to us not only at night, when we are alone with our individual dreams, but also through our sacred texts. I believe that all the world’s sacred scriptures, in fact, can be seen as our collective dream: a story that, just like our nighttime dreams, communicates through symbol and metaphor; a story that comes to show us the path of healing and wholeness; a story that, at times, must confront us with painful images in order to awaken us to injustice, to cruelty and neglect, and to the misuse of power — before it’s too late.

And so it is that we find ourselves confronted this day with the nightmare of our foremother Rizpah. A woman whose life has unravelled into the realm of full-blown nightmare and who insists that in order to heal our own lives, we must be willing to see and hear her. In order to awaken to our own call in the world, we must see and hear the nightmare of this woman’s pain. A woman has no status or power. A woman whose body and soul are used, and abused, by the men who all but own her. And now we hear that even her sons have been taken from her:  murdered at the decree of a ruler who sacrifices the lives of innocent young men in order to try and shore up the economic well being of his nation and solidify his own power.

Friends, this particular nightmare from our sacred text does not unfold on the streets of Portland or Minneapolis or New York. But if this mother’s story sounds disturbingly familiar this summer, it’s because the Bible is the record of our own collective dream. Rizpah’s nightmare of economic injustice; of women and poor people being used and tossed away by their own government; of a social hierarchy that crushes innocent lives — this is the very nightmare to which the privileged among us are only now beginning to awaken. Rizpah’s story is the very nightmare that our black and brown sisters and brothers are living every day, even now. If ever there were a story for our own time, a story that can mirror for us the nightmare of our own tortured psyche, the story of Rizpah is that mirror. And today, our sacred text, our ancient dream, asks us whether we are willing to see ourselves in this holy mirror. Today, our mother Rizpah asks whether we are willing to let her nightmare wake us up.

One of the things that makes dreams such powerful tools for awakening is that they operate through images. Much like paintings and other forms of visual art, dreams bypass the skillful denials and rationalizations of our everyday verbal mind. Instead, images speak directly to the soul’s capacity to make meaning from metaphor and symbol. So today, I invite you to enter into this ancient text through the doorway of visual imagery as we spend some time with an artist’s rendition of this story. This opportunity to open the scripture with images is one of the beautiful gifts of this strange season. In our church sanctuary, it is very challenging to project an image in such a way that everyone can see it. But here in our own homes, we have the opportunity to let visual images lead us more deeply into the text. So I invite you now to take a close look at the painting Rizpah Mourns her Sons by Lauren Wright Pittman.

I wonder what part of this painting captures your attention first. For me, it is the enormity of Rizpah’s pain. A pain she refuses to hide. Beloved, this is not a silent grief. This is a grief, an anguish, that demands to be seen. It demands that those who are responsible for the death of this mother’s sons reckon with their deeds every time they see her. And see her they will. Because rather than slinking home to mourn, Rizpah has taken up her sackcloth and climbed the very mountain of God. And there she stays. “From the beginning of the harvest until the rains fell on them.” In the holy land, friends, this is something close to six months. Imagine. Six months of unrelenting civil disobedience in the most public place she could find. Six months of unspeakable anguish on display for all to see. Nothing can bring back the seven sons this woman has lost. All she has left is her unspeakable grief. All she has left are the lifeless bodies of her children. And she is prepared to defend those bodies–blood of her blood, flesh of her flesh–with her life. For six months her grief and rage are on display for all to see: the ancient world’s equivalent of a televised public vigil. For six months, she camps on that mountain,  refusing to go home and hide; refusing to back down until she is seen. Remember that Rizpah is a woman with no power, no money, no status, no legal recourse to right the wrongs that have unravelled her life. The only power she has is the power to make herself visible; the power to make the world see her in her grief and in her rage. And so, Rizpah seeks justice the only way she can: with a radical, desperate act of public grief. And finally, after six months, the king sees her. 

Finally, after six months, David sees this woman in her raw, unspeakable grief. Finally, after six months of public protest, the king recognizes the wrong he has done. Only then, when he is forced to see both himself and this woman clearly, is David moved to make an act of reparation. Only then does the king realize the error of his ways: God does not demand human sacrifice. David got that dead wrong. In the metaphorical language of our shared dream, God sends the waters of new life only when some kind of reparation has been made. God sends the waters of new life only after David realizes the error of his ways and — so little…so late — acts to honor the bones, and the memory, of those whose lives have been lost forever.

And so it is that across space and time, we are asked to receive the painful gift of this nightmare. A nightmare that comes, as all nightmares do, as a wake-up call. A nightmare that comes to remind us of the power of public grief. The sacred nightmare of a mother who demands justice for her sons and who insists that we see her pain as a prerequisite to our collective healing. A nightmare in which God sees the pain of the most vulnerable. A nightmare in which God calls us to  do the same, so that we too might change our ways. May we be awakened this day. Amen.

Out of the Boat

Step into the Swell  by Lisle Gwynn Garrity

a reflection on Matthew 14:22-33 for a season of rough waters…

Imagine, for a moment, that you are out in the middle of a big lake. You’re out on that lake with your friends in a fishing boat—just a little one that somebody’s uncle made. There you are in a small boat out in the middle of a big lake when all of a sudden, the sky goes dark and a storm comes up. Next thing you know, the wind is blowing so hard that no matter how hard you row, you can’t get any closer to shore. The waves are crashing over the sides of the boat now, and your friends are taking turns rowing and bailing, rowing and bailing, each one thinking the same dark thought: you may never make it back to land. And there in that boat, you see it all unravelling: your life, the lives of the ones you love, all the bright and beautiful plans you had for your life, all dashed to pieces by a storm you never planned for. I don’t know about you, but these days, when I hear this story, I can’t help but think that perhaps we humans are in a similar boat, all of us bailing as fast as we can, wondering when this storm will be over. 

But back to that lake. Just as you’re about to give up hope, something, or someone, begins to make its way toward you, walking across the waves. Something that looks like a ghost. Something that looks even more terrifying than the storm. Until suddenly… you realize who it is. Sure enough, it’s Jesus, calmly striding across the surface of the lake. 

So here’s the $64,000 question: What will you do? Remember that the waves are still crashing; the wind is still howling. Do you call out for help? Do you pray? Do you invite Jesus into the boat? 

All of those sound like pretty good ideas to me. But if you’re Peter, you have a different idea. If you’re Peter, you decide to step out of the boat and take a stroll yourself. 

Who does that? In the middle of a storm, while your little boat and all your friends are about to go down, you decide to get out and walk? I’m pretty sure that the Safe Boating Handbook published by the Holy Land Coast Guard does not recommend this course of action.

So, what in the world could Peter have been thinking? 

Friends, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t. I’m convinced that at this moment, Peter isn’t thinking at all. At least not with the rational mind we use every day—the cautious, logical mind that knows very well that a human being cannot walk across the surface of a lake. 

At this moment—who knows why?—Peter slips out of his cautious, everyday mind. And when he does, he suddenly realizes beyond any doubt not only who Jesus really is, but who he, Peter, really is: ONE with GOD. One with God! In that moment, Peter knows the astonishing fact that there is no separation, no distance, between himself and God. And in that sure knowledge, he steps out of the boat and strides across the waves. 

As Jesus himself might explain it, what happens to Peter in this moment is that he steps into the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, as Jesus tells us many times, is not somewhere far away; it’s not some place we go to when we die; in fact, it’s not a place at all.  For Jesus, the kingdom of God, the realm of Heaven, is right here, closer than our own breathing. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is a state of mind, a state of consciousness, in which we know beyond any doubt that just like Jesus, we too are one with God, one with each other, and one with the power of life flowing through all of creation—the power of God’s own life that is now flowing through our bodies and lifting our feet above those waves!

What kind of a shift does it take to enter the kingdom of God? The answer may surprise us, but it’s right here—it’s all right here in this little boat if we take a close look at what happens at the very end of this passage. The disciples see Jesus walking across the water, they see Peter do the same, and they decide right then and there what to do: They worship Jesus! They bow down and worship him. Which is a tempting thing to do, especially when we are afraid. So tempting that the institutional church has encouraged this activity for the better part of two thousand years. Which is a little strange. It’s strange because, as we know, Jesus never thought much of institutional religion. In fact, he spent his whole life trying to teach us that religious institutions and rigid religious traditions serve to prevent us from directly encountering the liberating, life-giving, presence of the living God. 

This worshipping reflex is also a little strange because we know that never—not once, not ever, not in any Gospel—does Jesus say “worship me.” Never. What he does say is “Follow me.” Follow me. Be as I am: one with the living God. And of all the disciples, it is only Peter who dares to take Jesus at his word. It is Peter who dares to leap out of that rickety boat—the very human boat of habit and fear—and actually follow the Christ of God into the state of Oneness. Oneness with God, with neighbor and stranger, and with all of creation, including those waves.

For Peter, and for us, moments like this are the high points of our individual and collective journeys; moments when we suddenly find ourselves in the kingdom of God—a state in which the center of our consciousness escapes the tiny boat of the small, individual mind and flies into the larger Mind of God: the state of consciousness that  Paul calls the Mind of Christ, and that turns out to be our own right mind.

And…then we forget. Sometimes in mid air. Sometimes not until we are safely back on land. But sooner or later, we fall back into our much more familiar, and much smaller, everyday mind. This is the egoic, or dualistic, mind: a state of consciousness in which we are always on the alert for difference, separation, and danger. Neuroscience calls this smaller mind the “reptilian brain,” and tells us that it is the job of this part of the brain to keep watch for anything that might threaten our survival. Ancient and primal, this is the mind of fear, the mind our earliest ancestors relied on to survive, and the mind we slip into as our default state of consciousness. Without our conscious effort, attention, and deep spiritual practice, we see our world through the lens of the often paranoid and always suspicious egoic mind: a mind that is constantly dividing the world into “us” and “them;” a mind that is constantly urging us to defend whatever it is we think we own.

And so, in the wake of our glorious leaps into the kingdom of God, religious people fall back into egoic mind and then frantically get to work: developing doctrines, making rules about right and wrong belief, making rules about who may and who may not join us at the communion table. Even in the wake of our encounter with Jesus—the teacher who spent his whole life breaking down the rigid walls of religious tradition and habit—even in the name of Jesus, Christians have gone on to build religious institutions to try and protect that stunning, miraculous insight we had into the very heart of God. 

The problem, of course, is that the systems we create with our profoundly dualistic egoic mind are directly opposed to the very nature of the God we have encountered and whom long to meet again. The God we keep meeting out there on the  afternoon lake is not, after all, the possessive, tribal God our ancestors once presumed. Rather, the God who keeps finding us is the God whom our deepest, most shocking insight tells us is profoundly One: the undivided, indivisible God of all creation. A God who can never be contained in any institutional or doctrinal boat. Just try and imagine Jesus being content to spend his life inside the tiny boat of religious doctrine. Any doctrine! On the contrary, the Christ who calls us over the sides of our boats is the One who is always one step ahead of us, calling us to let go of everything we thought we knew about ourselves and the world; the One who leads us out of our rickety boat of belief and habit; a Christ who calls us to join him out on the water, and who loves us right through the fears that contain our safe, small lives. 

And that’s why, even though organized religion gets it wrong so often, it’s also true that all the world’s religious traditions, somewhere in their tool kits, offer spiritual practices designed to sweep us out of the isolation of the egoic mind and into the liberating power and joy of our oneness with God, with each other, and with all of creation. 

In Christian tradition, some of our most powerful spiritual practices are those acts that we recognize as sacraments: physical acts that invite us to experience our fundamental oneness with God in and through the material body of the world and our own physical bodies. For instance, the sacrament of baptism. Tamed to a trickle from an indoor font, it may not look like an act of union with the waters of the world. But remember that baptism began as an immersion in—an ecstatic reunion with—the rivers and lakes and oceans of the earth. Following Jesus back to the water, we are invited to leap once again out of our habitual mind of separation and fear, and into a deep experience of oneness with God, with other human beings, and with all of creation. 

What Peter knows as he leaps out of that boat is that our bodies can recognize our oneness with God in ways that our everyday mind can never comprehend or explain. And it is the great insight of Christianity to understand that our communion with God and one another must, by necessity, circumvent the logic of the rational mind and plunge us into an experience of union by way of the physical body. The way of sacrament.


But first, we have to step out of the boat. Or, perhaps, the boat itself has to fall apart. Either one will do. Either way, we are invited, this season and always, to step out beyond our familiar habits of thought and action. Out into the body of the world. Follow me, whispers the Christ of God, even as our boat is tossed by the waves. Be as I am, Jesus whispers. Know that you, too, are One: with God, with your neighbor, with all of Creation. Throw yourself overboard into the arms of grace. I’ll catch you, he whispers. Fall in! Fall in!

Her Tears Have Turned to Laughter

The Heir (Sarah Laughed) by Hannah Garrity

a reflection on Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7

As we begin our time of reflection this morning, I invite you to spend a few minutes with the painting that illustrates today’s scripture reading. This painting by Hannah Garrity is titled, “The Heir,” and its subtitle is “Sarah Laughed.” The painting depicts, of course, Sarah gazing into the eyes of her newborn son, Isaac, both of them laughing with delight. As you take in this beautiful picture, I wonder if you might remember a time when you or someone you love has experienced this kind of delight: the kind that makes you laugh out loud with sheer joy. This kind of delight at the fulfillment of a long-held hope is one of life’s most beautiful gifts, and when this gift arrives, we are called to celebrate it with grateful and joyous laughter.

Of course, the arrival of a child is cause for delight and celebration whenever and wherever it happens. But I don’t think it’s possible to fully understand the delight that is depicted in this painting unless we know the story of what came before: years of painful yearning; decades of dashed hopes; the better part of a lifetime consumed with unfulfilled longing for the child that Sarah believed was promised to her by God.

This summer, we are making our way through some of our most ancient stories as we explore the idea of unravelling: What happens when the fabric of our shared life, the fabric of our plans — for own lives and for the world — all seem to be unravelling before our eyes due to circumstances beyond our control? It turns out that this kind of unravelling happens again and again in the Bible, as it does in our own lives. If ever there was a person who knows what it feels like to have one’s hopes and dreams unravelled by unforeseen circumstances, our foremother Sarah is that person. When we meet her today, Sarah has given up on ever bearing a child. By her own account, Sarah and Abraham have grown very old and are long past childbearing age. So far past, in fact, that when the mysterious visitor announces that Sarah will yet bear a son, Sarah’s response is to laugh out loud at him! And we can be sure that this is not a chuckle of delight. On the contrary, this is the cynical laughter of a woman who has long since given up hope; a woman who has long since given up on her heart’s deepest desire. Yeah, right, Sarah laughs. A child. That’s a good one!  

I wonder what our foremother Sarah might say to us if she could visit us here in this summer of our collective unravelling; this season in which so many of our own hopes and dreams, from vacations to weddings to college dormitories, are dissolving before our eyes or being postponed into the indefinite and murky future. If you’re so inclined, I invite you to spend some time with Sarah this week. It’s not hard to do. Just find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed for a while and take a few deep breaths to center your body and mind. Then, closing your eyes, invite Sarah to come and visit with you in the form of a waking dream or meditation. Ask her anything you like about your own waiting or your own unravelling; about the promises of God for your life and for the life of the world God loves. As you ask each question in turn, be sure to leave enough space, enough silence, for Sarah to offer her own wisdom and guidance. If you want to, you can pause this recording now to visit with Sarah and see what she might want to tell you about the experience of unravelling. When your visit feels complete, I encourage you to write down whatever you remember from this conversation, knowing that you can return here to talk and listen some more whenever you need to.

My guess is that when you enter into this kind of deep listening relationship with Sarah or any of the ancestors, you will hear the particular guidance that your own soul needs to hear at this time. But I can tell you what I heard when I listened on our behalf this week. I heard Sarah laughing with delight. I heard her laughing with delight at the fact that we are taking enough time this season to even listen — we, who are so fond of rushing and scheming to accomplish our own plans in our own human time. Inviting Sarah into my meditation this week, I see her standing before me with her dark skin and thick, coiled hair, laughing as she proclaims, in the words of the African-American church: God is good all the time. All the time, God is good! God is good, mother Sarah says. Even when things do not happen in our time, on our human schedule. God never leaves us, she says. Even when all our plans seem to be unravelling. God can work with that, child, she says. Sarah reminds me that God does not will or cause our painful unravelling: we humans have free will that can bring about all kinds of painful events, and of course, the world itself has sharp edges, cliffs, viruses. But whatever comes to pass, God can work with that, mother Sarah says. Sometimes, things don’t happen on our schedule, she says. But that doesn’t mean God is absent. All along the way, no matter how long it takes, God is working alongside us and inside us. All along the way, God is calling us to keep faith, and to take whatever actions are ours to take. All along the way, God is working beside us and within us for justice. For healing. For the restoration and rebirth of all creation. 

You were made just like me, Sarah whispers. To be a vessel for the future that God is fashioning from whatever circumstances have arisen. Do your part, she whispers. And do not despair.

And so, beloved, we offer a prayer of thanksgiving. For the One who calls us, even as our own plans unravel, to watch for the healing plans of God. And for the wise ones who teach us, even now, to be a vessel for God’s healing plans. For all these we say: Thanks be to God.

Unraveling, Unveiling, Unfurling

a reflection on Joel 3:13-16 for Pride Sunday 2020

All through this month of June, all over the world, rainbow flags are unfurling over city streets and small town roads. All over the world this month, citizens are taking to the streets to unfurl the rainbow flag of promise, of dignity, and of liberation for every body — particularly the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer bodies who continue to fight long and hard for liberation and justice and joy.

What a beautiful sight this is: the sight of the rainbow flag, representing the diversity of our lives and the infinitely diverse ways we love. All through this month of Pride, the rainbow flag represents the difficult and often dangerous work of making this world safe for all kinds of love. As our rainbow flags unfurl this month, they remind us of the power of this fierce love, and of the work that love still has to do in the world.

And I wonder if we might remember this day that these flags we wave did not unfurl overnight. Before our beautiful rainbow flags could unfurl in celebration, there was a great unraveling that had to happen. An unraveling not unlike the one the prophet Joel speaks of this morning. A necessary and at times disorienting process by which, with God’s help, we are called to unravel systems of prejudice and oppression. A great unraveling that must take place before any real liberation can come about.

As Joel describes it, and as we know from our own experience, the unraveling of long-held social norms can be painful, confusing, and exhausting work. The job of the prophet at a time of unraveling is to speak the truth about the injustice that we humans have created and to tell the truth of the harm we are doing to one another even when that truth is hard to hear. 

This day, the prophet comes to remind us that before any flag of liberation is unfurled, we must intentionally unravel the institutionalized systems of oppression that are so familiar, so commonplace, that we often don’t even see them unless we ourselves are the ones who are being strangled by their bonds. Systems of oppression that we unconsciously enshrine in our language, in our laws, in our policing practices, our school curricula, and in our courts.

Beloved, we are living through a season that the great Hebrew prophets would recognize. A season in which the prophets among us are working to unveil the painful truth of our shared life. On video. On the streets. In the testimonies of our black siblings. 

This Pride Sunday, as we celebrate the victories of the LGBTQ liberation movement, we are called to remember that before anyone could unfurl a rainbow flag, there was a long, difficult process of unveiling and unraveling that had to happen. I am praying that we will remember those who risked their lives to unveil the systemic oppression of queer folks: the targeting of queer bodies and lives by unjust laws and, yes, by the very police departments that are sworn to protect all citizens. 

Let’s remember that our Pride celebrations happen here in the month of June to commemorate the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising. A great uprising and unraveling in which LGBT folks, fed up with constant police harassment and rampant discrimination, took to the streets. And we can be sure that to those who witnessed the full-blown riot that ensued on the streets of New York, it looked like the unraveling of the social fabric itself. 

That’s because it was. Friends, let’s remember that often, the laws and customs that are woven into our social fabric are even now strangling the life out of precious, breathing bodies. Let’s remember that before we can unfurl the flags of liberation and celebration, we must first unravel the unjust laws and customs that have been woven to oppress and silence so many voices and lives. In this month of Pride celebrations, let us not forget the cost of this and every liberation movement. Let us not forget that the prophetic work of naming and unveiling systemic injustice continues, beloved, wherever God’s people live and speak out and march.

As we unfurl our rainbow flags; as we lift our voices and our banners for the sanctity and protection of black lives; as we take to the streets on behalf of the earth and of earth’s most vulnerable — the ones who have no vote and no voice — I wonder: What work of unveiling is yours to do? What work of unraveling is yours to do? Which of the ongoing movements for justice and liberation is breaking your own heart open right now? Which life, human or more than human, is yours to protect? 

This day, may we unfurl our flags in thanksgiving for those who risked and lost their lives in the struggle for liberation.

May we unfurl our flags this day as a promise to those who are not yet free. 

May we unfurl our flags this day as a promise that there is no such thing as freedom as long as anyone, as long as any body, is in danger.

May we have the prophetic courage to unveil and to unravel the bonds of oppression. Next year at this time, may we unfurl the flags of liberation for all beings. The flags of justice. The flags of God’s own joy.

One Body, One Spirit…Wherever We Are

black and white eagle
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

a reflection on Acts 2 for the Feast of Pentecost 2020

For this morning’s video prelude, click here. 

I hope you’ve had a chance to watch this morning’s video prelude. If not, you can find it by clicking on the link above. I’m not sure which I love more: the sight of that huge, beautiful body of starlings, or a chance to use the word “murmuration.” This is a murmuration of starlings: tens of thousands of individuals moving, swooping, turning, flying as one body. 

And the really amazing thing is that nobody knows exactly how they do it. We humans have tried to explain it, but no one has yet figured out exactly what invisible force of connection transforms thousands of birds from a collection of individuals each going its own way into one larger body, moving as one: a murmuration. 

It turns out that the Bible also has a name for this kind of phenomenon. Of course, when it happens in the Bible, we’re not talking about a group of starlings that begins to move and live as one body. In the Bible, we’re talking about a group of human beings who decide to leave their individual lives behind and live as one body known as “the people of God.” In the Bible, when a collection of individuals suddenly becomes animated and connected by a powerful, invisible force, we call that invisible force the Holy Spirit. And it is this Spirit whose arrival we celebrate each year on the day of Pentecost: the day when a collection of friends and neighbors and strangers suddenly receives a Spirit that transforms them into the Church, also known as the Body of Christ. One deeply connected, living, breathing Body. 

This year, in all kinds of new ways, we are learning that we ourselves are deeply connected. This year, in every conceivable way, we are learning that we are one body, not only spiritually but physically as well. This year, the invisible connections between us have been dramatically revealed by a virus that is moving between and among us, binding our lives together in very tangible and very dangerous ways.

At the same time, we are remembering this season that we are also connected in millions of beautiful and life-giving ways. As we bring all our resources and ingenuity to the work of caring for one another this season, we are remembering, together, that just like God’s Holy Spirit, our own acts of love, patience, and self-sacrifice have the power to gather us into a vast community of healing and new life. A virus and a wild, Holy Spirit of Love, both showing us that we are always deeply connected. Which one of these invisible, connecting forces will win the day? That will depend on the choices we continue to make in the months ahead.

Beloved, I miss you. I miss seeing your faces. I miss laughing and crying with you with you in person. I especially miss singing and praying with you on Sunday mornings. I know how hard these past few months have been for you. I see it in your faces on Zoom; I hear it in your voices when we talk on the phone. For a congregation that loves being together, this season of  physical distancing can feel interminable, and sometimes unbearable. 

Over the past few weeks, there have been a lot of confusing messages coming over the airwaves and the internet about what activities are safe, what activities are dangerous, and what churches should be doing here in our third month of social distancing.

But if the day of Pentecost has anything to say to us this year, it is to very clearly remind us that, appearances notwithstanding, we are one body. A body that we share not only with our fellow church goers but with all of humanity. The choices that we churches make about gathering or not gathering, closing or reopening our church buildings, will affect not only our own health and the health of our congregations, but the health of our entire community and, especially, the health of the most vulnerable among us.

The past three months have been extraordinarily difficult for all congregations, and particularly for church leaders and ministers. What I want you to know is that as the public health situation evolves, this congregation’s Board of Directors is continuing to have ongoing conversations about how to protect the health and safety of congregants, staff members, building renters, and the Salem community. As part of its deliberations, the Board is bringing in the latest information from state public health authorities; best practices gleaned from universities and other institutions; and recommendations from the national settings of the United Church of Christ and other denominational bodies.

For the past three months, I myself have been in daily conversation with other clergy here in Salem and far beyond. Along with clergy members in our own Central Pacific Conference and the wider United Church of Christ, I am attending Zoom gatherings in which we share resources and information necessary to keep our congregations and communities as safe and healthy as possible. In addition, I am working with a group of interfaith clergy here in Salem to share information and best practices for our particular community.

At this time, based on our current knowledge about the novel coronavirus, we understand that the things we all love to do together in church are among the behaviors most likely to spread the virus. Gathering indoors; gathering in mixed-age groups; sitting in pews that cannot be moved; and, especially, singing of any kind, even at a distance — these activities provide ideal conditions for the spread of the virus. For this reason,  national and local UCC clergy and denominational leaders are urging churches not to gather in person until all safety concerns are addressed. 

What does this mean in practical terms? While there are some very small churches (50 members or fewer) in rural counties (where there are no known cases of COVID-19) that may be able to gather this summer with extreme safety restrictions, most churches will not be able to safely gather again until there is an effective and widely available vaccine. 

This could change, of course. As I mentioned, clergy are in constant communication right now as we strive to stay abreast of new scientific and public health developments. But our denominational and ecumenical leadership bodies are urging churches not to gather in person until it is safe for everyone — including the most vulnerable among us — to do so. If we were to convene church gatherings of any size before there is a vaccine, it is likely that vulnerable people (those with health challenges, those with suppressed immune systems, and individuals over the age of 60) would, out of obligation or great love for their church, be tempted to attend. This would put many lives at risk.

Our own denomination, along with other church leadership bodies, is continually updating its recommendations. Among the most helpful resources is a document prepared by the Wisconsin Council of Churches, which is currently being shared by the national setting of the United Church of Christ.  This document translates state reopening mandates into guidelines for church gatherings. Based on these guidelines, churches of our size will not begin to reopen until very late in Phase 3 reopening plans. As is the case in many other states, Phase 3 of Oregon’s own reopening plan requires an effective treatment or vaccine to be widely available, a development which is still many months away.

What does this mean for our congregation and for the body of the church in the months ahead?

First of all, it means that we will continue to find more and more beautiful, new ways to be the Church. Beloved, I have no doubt that God is doing a new thing (and many new things!) among us. Over the past few months, we have seen, right here in our congregation and all around the world, that the Holy Spirit is winging among us, flying over Zoom connections and telephone lines, teaching us how to gather in Spirit and in great love, even at a distance.

In the months ahead, First Congregational Church will continue to offer many opportunities for online gatherings, including regular open mic nights, Zoom garden tours, adult education, Sunday school, youth group, crafternoons and an All-Ages Summer Camp at Home during the week of July 6 – 10th.

Of course, we will also continue to worship in all kinds of ways. So far, our “Worship Where You Are” service has been a big success and has become a model for other congregations around the country. While many churches jumped right into live-stream worship services, we are finding that a self-paced email worship service (with live links to music) is accessible to more people than Zoom or Facebook Live. In addition, each week, we are sending a paper version of this worship service to those in the congregation who do not have internet access at home.

Despite the success of this self-paced worship model, I am feeling the need to offer some kind of live-stream worship service on Sunday mornings. As you may have guessed, churches that were already live streaming their weekly services before the pandemic found it easy to continue broadcasting their worship over the internet when their churches shut their doors. Because FCC Salem  was not live streaming before the pandemic, it has taken us some time to assemble the necessary technology and expertise. We began offering live worship during Holy Week, and now we’re ready to do the same for Sunday worship. I hope you’ll plan to join us on the church Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/UCCSalemOR) on Sunday, June 7th, for our first live Sunday worship service. This will be a simple service, with shared prayers, communion, and the weekly sermon. As our staff and volunteers get more comfortable with this format, we will do our best to include music as well. Through the “comments” section of the page, you’ll be able to say hello and see who else is joining you for worship that morning. No need to have a Facebook account: the live stream is public and available to all. Please note that this will not replace the current “Worship Where You Are” email service. I will continue to provide both options every week, so that you can choose the worship experience that works best for you…or join us for both!

Beloved, these are challenging times for our neighbors, our families, and for the worldwide church. I hope you’ll remember that even on days when you are feeling lonely, you are never alone. Friends are only a phone call away, and as always, you’ll find a link to the  church directory in every weekly email. Please also remember that I am just a phone call away. I love hearing your voices every day! There are also several Zoom gatherings each week (which are also listed in your weekly e-newsletter), which you are welcome to join.

Best of all, God’s wild Holy Spirit is among us, friends. She is brushing her beautiful wings against our cheeks and whispering songs of healing and hope for us, for all creation, and for this whole world that God so loves. Amen.