Friday, November 30, 2018
Hold: A Poem
By Gowri Koneswaran
we’re taught to hold hands
when we cross the street
or walk with our mothers in parking lots or
navigate crowds with a friend and
don’t want to end up alone
hold hands with whomever is closest
when the power goes out
when the sirens scream near
when the moving of men marches
silences into the corner
hold hands when
they come calling,
when they threaten,
“this is necessary to
teach you a lesson” or
“this is necessary
to protect you”
hold hands when we stand still,
when we walk, when
when they tell us to
when they tell us
to do anything
hold hands when we
fall from the sky,
with or without parachute
when we leap from tall buildings,
with or without
the ability to fly
hold hands with the ones who
look like us,
talk like us,
believe like us
hands like fragile boxes or bombs,
things that could break or explode
each finger a troop in the human army
each gesture a shield
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Isaiah was the prophet, poet, and pastor before, during and after exile.
Exile is that time of fear lodged in the back of your throat and anxiety hovering/hanging in the air.
Exile is that time the person you frustrates you winning elected office or getting the promotion at work or posting on Facebook the vacation you've always wanted to take.
Exile is that moment you are pushed to the fringes - feel lost and left behind.
We don't have to live in the time of Isaiah to know Exile...we know Exile in our own lives...we have lived in Babylon even if we never had mail delivered to us there. We have been to Babylon even though it no longer really exists on a map. We know Isaiah because his story is found in our stories.
During Exile, Isaiah starts with a word of comfort/care/compassion. But in verse 6 of chapter 40, we get this great dialogue -
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
When the voices says cry out...Isaiah answers, "What can I say?" Or you could translate this, "Why bother?" Why bother when we are so divided? Why bother when people hurt and harm us so much? Why bother because life is so fleeting and fading and fragile? Isaiah names that life can feel like grass that hasn't felt the renewing and refreshing rain...or a vase of forgotten flowers two weeks old.
Comfort, cry out with compassion, even when it feels like our efforts cannot stop the tide. Comfort and compassion even when our words feel like we are trying to make dried up, brown grass green again. Comfort and compassion in moments we would rather be cynical. That is not easy. I would have preferred Isaiah said, "Let's just all get that carton of Ben and Jerry's out of the freezer and binge watch Netflix." But that isn't want he says. Keep involved...keep showing up...keep staying open. Day by day...not because it is the easy path...but because it is along this rocky/rough/hilly/valley road we meet God most often.
Who do you long to call out to with comfort and compassion?
Who do you wonder if it will make any difference?
Who can walk with you through this giving you comfort and care and compassion?
May the insights to those questions give you more than a trace of God's grace.
Monday, November 26, 2018
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her.
Yesterday, as we were driving along, my wife and I witnessed the above photograph - credit to my wife for capturing the image on her phone. The small, slight rainbow amid the gloomy gray clouds. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I believe the above photo could summarize the whole book of Isaiah. Isaiah holds in tension the beauty and brokenness of life. He doesn't deny or dismiss the existence of the gloomy, gray threatening clouds of life. But he also poetically and prophetically says, "God is not finished with us yet." Isaiah's ministry before, during, and after the Babylonian exile.
Exile is an important spiritual image. Exile is that time you feel like a stranger in a strange land (perhaps that the Thanksgiving table this last week with family or at a new job or been shunned because of your sexuality or gender identification.) Exile is any time your life feels like it has been turned upside down (you or a beloved family member/friend gets sick or our brothers and sisters in CA dealing with ash where there was a home). Exile is any time you no longer feel comfortable in your skin...perhaps all of us know the feel of sticking out like a sore thumb or not recognizing the words falling from our lips. Ever said something you regret? I do...every day. In fact a good day is when I only have a few bone headed moments...most days I need at least both hands to try to keep track and count.
Isaiah ministered to people before, during, and after the Exile. These words about comfort are so powerful and profound...pastoral and poetic. Isaiah 40 might have been spoken to people right at the beginning of Exile. There were many people who would have thought there was no comfort. Remember how you felt when someone said something that hurt? Remember how you felt when you didn't get invited to the party or gathering? You don't always want to feel comfort. Sometimes the ache is so bad you just want to howl to get the pain out. It's like saying to someone, "Don't cry."
But comfort isn't saying we should not feel a certain way. Comfort is about flinging wide open our lives to God's presence in the pain. Not God who will magically take everything away...this isn't a musical where God will clear away the gray skies so we can put on a happy face. God's presence is that small, slight rainbow. It isn't either or...it is both and. God in the clouds and rainbow.
Comfort to those in exile...not that they immediate go back home and back to normal...but even in this strange land they didn't want to be in...God there. And if God is there...God can be here too. May there be a trace of God's grace...like a small rainbow every day in your life.
Friday, November 23, 2018
The leftover turkey sits in ziplock bags in the refrigerator,
Pie tins half full (or empty) of pumpkin and apple call your name,
The china waits patiently to be put back in the cupboard,
And the crumbs of the great feast yesterday are scattered around.
What makes for Thanksgiving? What recipe can be followed to fill our hearts with gratitude?
Is it food?
Is it family or friends?
Is it the anticipation and expectation of a day set apart?
Is it the preparation that tells our hearts something is about to happen?
Is it the sharing around the table, each naming a gratitude and thanks?
Is it, in class multiple guess quiz style, "All the above"?
And if we agree that it is all and more than what we can name,
Why not practice these things more than just one day?
See the food as an amazing gift from the good earth and the hands that have helped prepare it.
Invite friends and family over for meals more often.
See every day with audacious and indescribable hope...as Mary Oliver says in her poem Praying, "...this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
What is that voice speaking to you on this day after Thanksgiving?
Is it critical of what wasn't or amazed at what was?
Is it quiet in these early morning hours?
Or frenzied with Black Friday sale shopping?
Is it uncertain? Because here you on the brink of a new day, on the brink of everything, the unknown future is now the present and here YOU are...in this moment...with this breath...which might be used to give thanks.
May these posts and thoughts and random ideas about giving thanks have awaken an attitude of gratitude and posture of praise and thought of thanksgiving that might linger and last beyond the month of November with traces of God's grace.
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Today...on Thanksgiving Eve...with company occupying the guest bedroom, the turkey thawing (hopefully) in a bath of water in the kitchen sink...pies cooling on the counter...and the hope that tomorrow will be a day overflowing with gratitude ~ hear this wonderful invitation not just for today but for every day.
Three Gratitudes by Carrie Newcomer
Every night before I go to sleep
I say out loud
Three things that I’m grateful for,
All the significant, insignificant
Extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life.
It’s a small practice and humble,
And yet, I find I sleep better
Holding what lightens and softens my life
Ever so briefly at the end of the day.
Sunlight, and blueberries,
Good dogs and wool socks,
A fine rain,
A good friend,
Fresh basil and wild phlox,
My father’s good health,
My daughter’s new job,
The song that always makes me cry,
Always at the same part,
No matter how many times I hear it.
Decent coffee at the airport,
And your quiet breathing,
The stories you told me,
The frost patterns on the windows,
English horns and banjos,
Wood Thrush and June bugs,
The smooth glassy calm of the morning pond,
An old coat,
A new poem,
My library card,
And that my car keeps running
Despite all the miles.
And after three things,
More often than not,
I get on a roll and I just keep on going,
I keep naming and listing,
Until I lie grinning,
Blankets pulled up to my chin,
Awash with wonder
At the sweetness of it all.
Monday, November 19, 2018
This week...as we prepare for Thanksgiving on Thursday...a few random thoughts. I preached this sermon below at an Interfaith Service in our community last week.
As a pastor within the United Church of Christ, we celebrate and claim a historical tie to the Pilgrims. If you drive around New England, almost every town will have a white clapboard church sitting in the center some of which date back to the Pilgrims arriving in this country. Many of the church signs out front of those buildings will be say, "First Congregational UCC"; "Mayflower UCC"; "Pilgrim" or "Plymouth UCC". You could say that Thanksgiving is a very Congregational holiday. You are welcome. But it is important to acknowledge that our Congregational forefathers and mothers had a complicated relationship with the Native Americans. Beyond the moment of breaking bread together, which we symbolically we recall on Thanksgiving Thursday, there were moments we, as Congregationalist, did not always live out the values of our faith. The treatment of the First Nation people did not reflect the loving kindness, doing justice, and walking humbly that the prophet Micah has called people of faith of every age to embody. Like so much in life, there is both blessing and brokenness when we open our history books.
That is why interfaith services with people from a variety and no faith tradition are so vital today. Beyond words or lip service, being together; listening and learning from each other is an important witness in a world that is too divided and where harsh hard words are spoken too frequently. This interfaith service is a visible way that as people of faith we need to stand up against violence in our sacred spaces; whether that be in a Mosque or Synagogue or Church; whether the pain and harm happens with weapons or words that spread hate. When we gather across religious lines that too often divide, we hold on to the truth that when one of us hurts, we are all wounded and hurt. To worship alongside each other and respect each other’s traditions is an affirm that we are all prayerfully searching to be guided and grounded in the holy.
When asked what I am most grateful for it is the freedom to worship with my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. It is a spirit I hear in the music being sung by diverse voices. It is this sacred ground and sharing food together. It is the fact that the sun shone forth today with a refreshing breeze and that I don’t have to shovel snow this winter. It is to be with a wider faith family who recognize that while there is much work to do to bring about justice for all, these moments do matter and make a difference. What we are doing tonight is a blessing. You can bless one another by seeing each other, by being present, and by singing out together. This Thanksgiving I invite you to not just count your blessings, but to actually bless another person. How do you bless another person? I am reminded of a poem I came across where the poet offers a blessing on an ordinary day in the park to every one she sees. Hear these words.
Bless the slow walkers of old, gray-muzzled dogs
and the quick ones with their sleek young dogs
and the patient ones with rambunctious pups
they allow to take a dip in the lake.
Bless the new mothers pushing strollers,
cooing nonsense to their babies, tucking in
blankets as the breeze rises.
Bless the teen in stars-and-stripes shorts
who rides his skateboard
hat on backwards, not meeting anyone’s gaze.
Bless the weathered woman in a wheelchair
and the young woman who pushes her along.
Bless the haloed girl riding on her daddy’s shoulders
and bless that man who raises her up
to a place where she can see the world.
Bless the whistlers, the hummers and the ones
who choose to walk in silence.
Bless the loud, animated conversations between friends.
Bless the chirps of the last crickets, the surprise
of wind chimes someone hung in a tree.
So may the spirit that infuses and inspires us here tonight cause us to bless each other and let those blessings flow forth from this space, this week, this month, and filling the year to come. God bless each of you. Amen.
Friday, November 16, 2018
What does it mean to be a prophet, pastor, and poet?
Does it mean we afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted?
As if we can decide or decipher who falls in which category.
Does it mean we let love fuel and feed our lives?
But what about those who we struggle to love?
You know, the one in the quiet moments when no one else is around except the emptiness of your own thoughts you even see as unloveable or unworthy of such sacred love.
Does it mean we escape into a world of words where we might build a place where we rule and make all the laws?
After all, what are these words of mine but an attempt to construct with nouns and verbs a vision of the house where I want to dwell?
Perhaps the problem is classification and categorization.
Perhaps the problem is that we think we have to choose which role to take.
You can proclaim to be a prophet and pound the pulpit pointing out all the injustice in the world.
You can decide your path is the pastor, the one who tries to be with and among seeking to love each person.
You can enroll in a poetry class and even occasionally try your hand at poetry...posting to your blog...hoping no one will troll you in the comment section.
But perhaps it is at the intersection of all three where we find the traces of grace.
The prophets who don't shout but speak with softer verbs still calling out injustice.
The poets who might not rhyme like Dr. Seuss but still make us smile at the beauty today.
The pastors who seek to walk the way of the world and not just talk.
What is found at that intersection of Prophetic Avenue, Pastoral Lane, and Poetic Trail?
What monuments or landmarks or shops/stores/housing?
Who is there?
Close your eyes.
Stand at that intersection.
Then, open your eyes again this day to go out in search of such a place.
But beware ~~ you may just find it.
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
So, here we are several weeks into listening to Isaiah.
Here we are holding his visions for the world that is re-created, re-crafted, re-formed and re-fashioned with people from all nations welcomed/embraced at God's mountain to be led by a child who establishes justice/mercy/love as the rule of the day and where human relationships reorders the whole of the earth.
I get that Isaiah seems fanciful and fictional and like a farce.
I get that it is easy to shrug our shoulders as if to say, "Yeah, that will be the day, Isaiah. I am sure pigs will magically fly and unicorns suddenly appear."
Our cynicism comes from the painful, harsh realities of life.
Part of the reason why I think Isaiah, the prophet and poet, turned to poetry.
The poets words are always trying to call our attention to the miss-able moments of life. Those that go by in a blur of busyness. The poets words draw us to the details (I recently read a beautiful poem about eating a grapefruit...but you could substitute in any of your favorite fruits/veggies). The poet will whisk us away to 30,000 feet where we see the world from another perspective.
Even if you don't like poetry...consider music ~ which is often poetry sung and set to a beat.
Music (even music without words) tells a story and invites us into the deeper realm. Notice, I didn't say another world. I don't think music is an escape, it is simply shifting the lens or better yet helping us clear off our eyeglasses which have become smudged and smeared ~ distorting how and what we see.
So, here is the invitation for a trace of God's grace.
Put on music (you might remember last year I posted a series in Advent on Christmas Carols).
Listen...not just with ears of whether you like it or don't...not just with ears of do I "get" it ~ as in I understand it ~ but listen deeply to the artist the way you would a friend who you are having coffee with.
Let those words/notes settle. Don't rush to judgement or render a verdict or pen a review in your mind.
You and the music.
You and the poet.
Perhaps like Isaiah you might gain a deeper sense of what God is up to in our world.
If you need help finding a piece of music...here is one offering:
Monday, November 12, 2018
Take a look at the painting from Edward Hicks from around 1833.
Perhaps you notice all the animals congregated peaceable together. The cattle and lion...the lamb and leopard...in the lower right corner a bear and ram nosh on a piece of wheat.
Hicks was inspired by the pastor, poet, and prophet for the present moment ~ Isaiah chapter 11. He was taken by this vision of a re-creation of what we know as the natural order of things. Isaiah talks and tells about a time when the way the world works is interrupted and disrupted by God's presence. Isaiah preached and proclaims God Spirit will swirl over the chaos not only undoing the violence we have come to know, but re-ordering life. It is, to quote the REM song from my youth, "Its the end of the world as we know it...and I feel fine."
Then...in the back ground...perhaps not noticed at first, Hicks includes the image of William Penn signing a treaty with the First Nation/Native Americans.
Hicks is proclaiming and preaching that perhaps we don't ever think we will live long enough for us to witness carnivores suddenly becoming herbivores. We don't think we will ever see a wolf and lamb enjoying some nicely sauteed spinach, crispy cauliflower, paired with a nice chardonnay. We tend to trust Darwin's survival of the fittest more than an ancient idea that creation will suddenly be turned upside down and inside out.
But Hicks is suggesting that we miss moments when our human striving and struggling to live with justice, peace, equity, and love does bring about a trace of God's grace. Yes, it is fleeting. For every treaty signed there was too many miles of a trail of tears. For every moment two people on different sides of a political spectrum actually listen to each other (lest you think I am making that up, listen to this hopeful and engaging episode of On Being) there are too many tweets and hurtful/harmful verbal exchanges that only turn up the volume of distorted discourse. For every moment of racial healing, there are too many examples of discrimination. Same for violence and mistreatment of women. Same is true for the ways our LGBTQ community is seen. The scales seem tipped less toward Hicks' visual interpretation of A Peaceable Kingdom...more toward a world of might makes right and my side has to win at all costs.
So, where does that leave us?
Do we just discount acts like William Penn or the first Muslim Women being elected to Congress or Sally Kohn and Erick Ericson's conversation I linked above? Are those the one offs or the small, slow work of the Spirit? Are these tiny traces of grace what feeds and fuels our lives or the latest verbal volleyball of politics today?
What if it isn't either/or but both/and?
What we struggle with so much today is that these tiny steps toward justice and a world more reflective of God's inclusive love are quickly tossed aside. We would rather repeat endless/debate/ discuss and focus on a scandal than a sacred stirring. So God rarely gets a word in edgewise.
What I am suggesting in the both/and way of life is to go to your favorite news sources, read about the brokenness...but also consider as part of your daily consuming of life as we know it to also find places that tell us stories about people like Penn who are trying to live differently. This could be The Good News Network or The Christian Science Monitor or some other source you find to offer a perspective that helps you see the world in another way than the usual binary, either/or lens we are so accustom.
It might not be the wolf and lamb dancing together...but it might remind you that God's work and love song in our world has not stopped or ceased, is there...just like a trace of grace.
Friday, November 9, 2018
Since I referenced these wise words in the last post...it seemed appropriate to share the whole poem with you on this Friday:
Our Deepest Fear
By Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us;
It's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
Wednesday, November 7, 2018
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulder Isaiah 9
Alright...so pause your inner Handel's Messiah soundtrack that started to play the moment you read the above verse. And for a moment...don't rush across the bridge that connects Isaiah to Jesus... because chances are this passage wasn't about Jesus and our Jewish brothers and sisters certainly don't read Isaiah 9 with that connection. And for a moment just sit in the paradox of this verse.
A child born...authority rests upon his shoulders.
A infant - vulnerable and yet powerful.
Authority given not because of might or knowledge or some fancy framed degree hanging on the wall, but by virtue of the fact that the one before us is blessed by God.
That is NOT how the world works. We don't let children vote or ask them to run companies...we still make jokes about twenty-somethings who start tech business still being "babies" - which shows our generational bias and agism. We tell children what to do, where to go, how to act, and what to believe, we don't give them keys and then sit in the passenger seat! (See last post about teaching my son to drive). Reminds me of Eugene Peterson's quote that "Telling people to go and read the Bible today is like giving the keys to a car to a child and saying, 'Drive it!'" Or C.S. Lewis who said, "The Bible is an adult book written for adults."
These ideas and insights in the tiny words on razor thin pages will turn our world upside down! Giving a child authority! We can talk all we want about children being our future hope, but we mean down the road...when we are good and ready to let them be in charge...which we will tell them when that is...probably not for some time though. Or when people say that our children and youth, who are in church and have a voice today...are our future hope rather than our present day voice we need. After all, we had to wait to get the power we presently have, we had to sit at the kids card-table growing up with the plastic plates and our cousin who wanted us to see milk squirt out his nose, we had to pay our dues...turn around is just how the world works.
Not according to Isaiah. (Or by the way, to Jesus who is constantly telling parables about God's upside down world...but remember this passage might not be about Jesus).
Now I get it. You hear stories about parents today putting their children first running their kids everywhere at their whim; parents who are part of the 'unschooling' movement who think children learn more being out in the world; parents who let the kids decide everything in an attempt to be their friend. But, not everything we hear is reality. Most of the parents I know are just trying to get through the day, juggling work and raising a family, trying to keep up with changing technology, homework, and the fact that with every birthday of our children the clock seems to speed up! I once heard, "Behind every child is a parent who thinks s/he is messing everything up." Yup. We are - to quote the last post - trying to navigate life with a learners permit.
The thing about authority or power is that while you can force others to do things and can cause a great deal of hurt and harm...power and authority can also help heal. And, to toss/throw out he often quoted poem by Marianne Williamson, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, That most frightens us." Isaiah actually starts chapter 9 by talking about light and darkness. And we can sometimes get so used to walking in the dark, that we don't know how to go toward the light. Or the light might seem so different. Or the light might be listening to a child...even handing that child the keys to your car! That is the way God's presence is moving. That is the way we open to traces of grace. That is the invitation in these dwindling days of 2018. May we sense the incomprehensible wisdom of God guiding and ground us in such a time as this.
Monday, November 5, 2018
Two weeks ago, our son got his learners permit. In our marriage, where my wife and I value equality, since I was the one to drive him to the DMV; walk into the DMV; wait for at least five minutes (I might be rounding up here by the way); pay for his licenses; and then...just a second here I have to catch my breath because of all I have done so far...drive him back home ~ I figured I had really done my part. So, my wife graciously and generously has been doing most of the instruction.
The surreal experience has reminded us just how complex these cars we drive are. There was the moment when my wife told him to turn on his turn signal when pulling out of the parking lot where he was initially practicing, to which the response was, "Um, where is that?!" Why should he know where the turn signal is? It is easy to forget how many buttons and gizmos there are staring back at you in a car. And don't even get me started on round-abouts, because that traffic invention seems to break a number of rules all at once.
In some ways that is like life...especially today. We stare at endless news cycle...that is compounded by social media (our friends and family responding to that news cycle)...too many stories of violence and hurt and harm and mean things being said (perhaps we don't ever outgrow our inner middle school self) ~ so I can sometimes feel like a new driver white-knuckle grip on the wheel of life. I can sometimes feel like my son asking, "Where do I turn off this road we are traveling on?"
But after a few weeks of standing on the sidelines safely observing all this...it was my turn on Thursday to move from the drivers seat to the passenger seat. Mind you, I still remember the day we brought our son home from the hospital and in was in an infant car seat in the back and the day he graduated to a booster seat...and the first time he sat up front. Thankfully we were coming home from church, so I felt a connection to God.
And because God has a great sense of humor this was the first time our son had: driven at dusk AND driven in rain AND had to deal with my anxiety which filled the car.
And he did...
I am so proud of how he listened...tried to stay aware of what was around him...and made it home safely.
Maybe we don't ever really graduate in this life from having our "learners permit". We are constantly traveling new roads with different signs and changing conditions. Maybe we are all trying to figure out how to respond to the rain storms and other drivers and trying to be safe. Maybe we are all feel that stress and strain of someone in the passenger seat giving advice (whether we wanted it or not) and our sister in the back seat making jokes. Maybe learning to drive isn't something we ever master - but perhaps that isn't the point. Because there was more than a trace of grace to see the smile on our son's face when we got home on Thursday. Maybe it be so for you and me as we travel life's road today.
Friday, November 2, 2018
In honor of Halloween this last week, I was inspired to write a poem.
Compared to the other pumpkins at the patch,
When you see the one I picked it will make your head scratch.
Your mind will reel and your puzzler will work over time,
You will look at it and think, "That isn't worth a dime."
But to me, the bumps aren't ugly nor is pattern too strange,
To my way of thinking there is beauty, don't think me deranged.
Beautiful because my life too has misshaped and not always smooth.
Beautiful because my life has warts and worries and out of a groove.
Beautiful because each bump and un-smooth places has made me who I am.
Beautiful because I look at this fruit and see the story of a life that isn't a sham.
So have your smooth, perfect pumpkin to crave a face for this week.
I'll take this one that others passed over because it wasn't sleek.
I'll take it like Charlie Brown took at poor little Christmas tree.
I'll take it and hold it and admire it because it is much like me.
Beautifully bumpy, misshaped, not always perfect.
Every time I see it, something within me just clicks.
So celebrate the less-than and passed over and not picked.
Because in God's beautiful creation ugly pumpkins might just do the trick.
May you sense God's grace as the days grow darker, nights longer, and we crave fruit to put a light inside...because that is how joy works.