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Rabbit Tales

imageFive years ago, when I was in Wales on sabbatical, I went to church one Sunday with my sheep-shearing friend Eifion and his wife Jane. Eifion is not much of a church-goer, so I was surprised as we walked out after worship when he said, “That was a good sermon.”

My colleague Peter has taught me to be curious when I hear that kind of remark. Maybe I could learn something about good preaching from Eifion. I asked him, “What made it good?”

“It was short,” Eifion replied.

When I was in seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I had a professor who liked to wander from the topic at hand. He would go off on tangents, most of which were quite entertaining, until we had wandered so far from the path that any relationship to where we started was virtually impossible to discern. Then he would kind of “come to,” shake his head, and declare, “Well, that was a real rabbit chase.”

It was the first time I heard the Southern expression, “chasing rabbits.” It means getting distracted or taking off in an irrelevant and usually unproductive direction. I have been known to chase a few rabbits myself in the course of my preaching or teaching. Rabbit chasing can sometimes take over a whole Bible study hour, as we go off merrily in a direction completely unrelated to the text at hand. Rabbit chasing can also make long sermons even longer.

But as my friend Eifion reminds me, and my colleague Peter reinforces, and my congregation also knows, sometimes shorter is better. So last Sunday, when my sermon had gone on a while, I dropped my final illustration. Ironically, the story I dropped at the end was about chasing rabbits. And since it is hard for us preachers to have a good sermon illustration and just “let it go,” and since a different kind of “rabbit chasing” is what I think we Christians are called to in these days, I offer you that story now.

imageThe story comes from the early centuries of Christianity, when devoted hermits would go out to the desert seeking an isolated place where they could pursue prayer and a simple way of life. As the story goes, one day a young pilgrim came to one of these desert ascetics and asked, “Why is it that some who seek God come to the desert and last only a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful for a lifetime?”

The teacher smiled and answered, “One day I was sitting in meditation and prayer, when a rabbit ran by. My dog (apparently even ascetics find comfort in the company a dog provides) immediately jumped up and, barking, took off after the rabbit. Pretty quickly other dogs were attracted by the barking and joined in the pursuit (there must have been other ascetics nearby with their own dogs!). They followed the rabbit, through the brush and thorns and across the desert, until one by one, hot, thirsty, tired and discouraged, all the other dogs dropped out. Finally it was just my dog who had the energy to continue the chase.”

The student sat for a while before the teacher until finding the courage to say, “I don’t understand. What does your dog chasing a rabbit have to do with dedication to a spiritual practice?”

The teacher answered, “When the work got hard, all the other dogs dropped out, discouraged, because they had only heard the barking. They only knew the rumor of what they were seeking. But my dog was able to keep going because my dog had seen the rabbit.”

“Do not grow weary in doing good,” Paul tells the church in Galatia, “for in due season we will reap, if we do not grow tired.” (Galatians 6:9)

I believe the work we are to be doing as followers of Jesus is hard work. “Stay awake,” we are told during this season of Advent. “Watch for God’s presence.” But in these days when hate and fear seem to be everywhere, it is easy to get exhausted. How shall we find the strength to keep going?

The point, of course, is for us to “see the rabbit.” We are called to live out the power of Love in ways that demonstrate the strength of community. We are called to reject the messages of fear that keep us from confronting racism, or sexism, or misogyny, or anti-Muslim hate speech. We are called to practice compassion so much that compassion becomes our automatic response to what we encounter in the world.

imageThen, even as the work gets hard, and our souls get tired and thirsty, by the grace of God, we will remember what we have seen, and what we know, and we will find the strength to carry on.

december 2014 068I had Sunday’s Thanksgiving sermon all planned or as “planned” as mine usually gets by Sunday morning.

However, at the hour before worship when I was just about to sit down and go through it once again, the word came:  Sue had died unexpectedly last night.

We’d all been keeping Sue and Jerry in our prayers in the months since her leukemia diagnosis.  She’d survived a stem cell transplant and 100 days of treatment.  We were hopeful, she was hopeful, she would soon be back at church.  But then Saturday, trouble getting up and dressed in the morning led to a 9-1-1 call that led to the hospital emergency room, a heart attack and her death last night.

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I had a sermon – and now the shreds of it before me – shredded in my own shock and tears as I talked to Jerry on the phone.  Shredded as I thought about sharing the heartbreaking news with the congregation in a few minutes. Whatever my sermon was all sounded too pat and too sure – a sermon that hadn’t been tested against a grief like this.  I hung up the phone and stepped out to tell the choir about Sue.

What to do for worship?  Cancel Thanksgiving?  Read together the texts that I read at memorials after times like this –The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want, (Psalm 23), I am convinced that neither death nor life… , (Romans 8:31-39), In my father’s house are many rooms…(John 14:1-4).  It all felt like too many words – too much, too soon.  Perhaps better to leave space for stunned silence.  Perhaps carry on – but how?  How to worship without just pushing through?

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I shared the sad news at the beginning of worship greeted by gasps and tears.  I said a prayer and invited us to let worship carry us that day.  It certainly would need to carry me.

I stumbled into a sermon about vulnerability.  I wondered if the disruptions and dislocations in our lives are the best chance we have of meeting all we mean by Jesus.  Perhaps, I shared, we need to trust in staying here in our vulnerability – that place where we’d rather not be – I’d rather not be.

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But as I struggled to find an ending, the sermon was already being lived there in the back pew.  Jerry and his son Peter had come to church that morning and were being surrounded by hugs and tears.

Whatever this struggling preacher was trying to say in so many words about the God who might meet us and remake us in our brokenness was a message long ago received in the back pew by two grieving men embraced by a grieving church.

As I joined others to embrace Jerry and Peter after the service, I fell into Thanksgiving.  In this most broken of places, Jesus had indeed been here all along – meeting us in that amazing grace we call each other.november 2014 060

Insisting on Prayer

imageAn unusual thing happened in church last Sunday. At least it felt unusual to me, in my progressive congregation of “believers, seekers and doubters.” Of course it has been an unusual week. And “unusual” is probably the wrong word. Profoundly sad. Disorienting. A week of feeling lost. Those word seem like a better fit for me.

Last Tuesday was for me a time of profound dislocation. What I thought I knew Tuesday morning about the progress that has been made in resisting hate had all changed by Tuesday night. I am not referring to whether or not my particular candidate won an election. I have been through many times of “winning “and “losing “in the elections. I am talking about the hatred, fear, ignorance and division on which Donald Trump built his campaign. I am talking about the immediate increase in xenophobic, racist, and homophobic hate crimes which began the day after the election. I am talking about the fact during that the warmest year on record for our planet, this country elected a man who believes that climate change is a hoax.

So when my congregation gathered on Sunday morning, most of us were feeling a sense of deep grief and shock. The values of inclusion, and earth care, and welcome, and resisting racism, are faith values we all share. It was good to be together. And the hymns held us, as music and singing together does at such times. And the words held us as well. At the end of my sermon, the congregation stood together and some from the back began to sing: “Amen, amen, amen, amen.” My congregation almost never talks back to the preacher, and I don’t think any of them has ever spontaneously sung back to her. It was a profound and precious moment. But that still is not the unusual thing I am referring to here.

After the sermon in my congregation and after singing together, our usual order of worship moves into prayer. And so my colleague Peter stepped out and began to lead us there. He named our concerns: people we are holding in our hearts, people who were ill, or frail, or in their final days. People who were grieving individually, even as we had named our communal grief. A family celebrating a birth, signified by a rose on our communion table, put there whenever we get such good news. On this Sunday news of a birth was a deep sign of hope.

Here is where it helps to know the particulars of my congregation’s flow of worship. The children are in worship with us adults for the first ten to fifteen minutes of our service. Before they head off to their various classes, we sing together, have a time of blessing (lifting up something in the life of our church that all of us are celebrating, or wondering about, or living into) and pray. We close by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. It is one way we offer our children words we know they will carry throughout their lives. I once heard someone say that we all pray the Lord’s Prayer in the voice that first taught it to us, and I think in many ways that is true. Even now, more than six decades later, I still hear the rhythms of my family’s recitation of that prayer when we gathered around the Thanksgiving table. It is the only time my family did anything “religious” together.

But this Sunday, during our blessing time, we received new members into our church. And when we do that, we switch the order of our worship service. We say our covenant together at the blessing time (more words that we would like our children to know) and we move the Lord’s Prayer to the end of our prayer after the sermon. So last Sunday it was Peter’s job to lead us in the Lord’s Prayer.

But it is hard to break habits. So it is understandable to me that when Peter offered his powerful prayer, for us, for our neighbors and friends, even for those we might think of as enemies, he ended with a simple “Amen.” He forgot to lead us into the Lord’s Prayer.

When Peter finished praying, and sat down, there was silence. Our organist David was still waiting. All of us were, in fact. David even asked softly, “The Lord’s Prayer?”

But Peter didn’t hear him. Peter, on the other side of the chancel, just looked across to David and said “We sing the song,” as if it was David who had lost his place in the service rather than Peter.

After another moment of hesitation, David began to play and we all began, tentatively, to sing. It looked like our worship was going to continue without the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes that’s just what you do. When something doesn’t go exactly as it says is supposed to go in the worship bulletin, you just move on. I figured that was what we would do now.

Then, after our singing, Peter stood up again, this time to welcome visitors. He invited anyone there for the first time to raise a hand, if they were willing, so we can make a special point of reaching out. From the center of the congregation, Rock, one of our long-time members, raised his hand.

“Are you visiting today, Rock?” Peter asked, laughing.

“We didn’t say the Lord’s Prayer.” Rock said.

Peter was puzzled. He still did not understand what folks were trying to tell him.

“The Lord’s Prayer.” someone else said. “We skipped it.”

And then Peter got it. He looked at his bulletin, and he looked back up at the congregation. He was at a moment of choice. Would he insist on moving ahead, in a service that was already running a little long? Would he just keep going, like we are taught to do in normal circumstances?

But this is not a normal time. This is a time of dislocation. And Peter’s heart knew that. He trusted his instincts.

So we stopped. We took a step back. Peter invited us back into prayer.

“But this time,” Peter said, “let’s pray this differently.” It was Walter Wink, author of books about the powers of hatred and greed and domination in our world, and the call to Christians to resist those powers, who suggested a way of praying together that included eyes wide open, and voices raised in protest.

“Keep your eyes open while we say this prayer,” Peter invited us. “Say this prayer loudly, as loud as you want, as loud as you can. And let’s look at each other while we say it.”

So we began. Eyes open, voice raised, I began the familiar words.

“Our Father, Our mother, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I insisted.

“Give us this day our daily bread,” I asked in the name of my deep hunger for justice.

“And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” I said, wondering what forgiveness might or might not mean in the days to come.

“And lead us not into temptation, (don’t let our spirits fail, keep us faithful to the call to love and justice), but deliver us from evil, (how we need such deliverance.)”

“For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen.”

As the words came from my heart, my eyes met the eyes of those around me. I turned to the choir. I turned to the ones standing right next to me. I looked out across the congregation. I heard us all insisting on bread for all. I heard us all crying out for compassion. I heard us all acknowledging together a power greater than the power of hate.

Of all that happened in worship on Sunday, that is the moment I want to remember. That moment when my progressive, mostly liberal community of believers and seekers and doubters all turned their hearts to prayer. They insisted that they would not leave until we had shared this together.

Some of that energy was probably habit. After all, we do like to do things the same way, and change is not easy. Some of it might have come from a sense of obligation or ceremony. This prayer is just what we do together.

But I believe that in that moment, something else was happening too. The work we have before us will be difficult. We will get tired and discouraged. We will have to keep going even when our energy flags. We will need to be strong, and to speak up, loudly, and to hold on. And for all of the varieties of our definitions of prayer, and what we could spend hours arguing about, what prayer does or doesn’t do, I love that my congregation recognizes that we are not the only ones in this place. God is right here with us. I love that we insisted on a moment to acknowledge we are not alone. There is a hope that is bigger than this moment of grief. We can call out for that hope together. I love that on this Sunday of dislocation, my congregation got disruptive, and talked back. We stopped everything, and set aside whatever awkward feelings we polite folks get when things have to be stopped, and we prayed.

Eyes wide open, because we are awake. All forward. Let’s go.
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We will not fear
though the earth shall change
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea
though the waters roar with its tumult…
Be still…(Psalm 46)

Join us tonight:

6:00 p.m.

A Post-Election Restorative Gathering

University Congregational United Church of Christ
4515 16th Avenue NE in Seattle

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Amidst the changes of this election that we may long for or fear, we will gather tonight to begin the slow work of healing  after a bitter and tumultuous political season and as we face the road ahead for ourselves and our nation.

Tonight  amidst all the feelings we may hold,

we take time to be still,

light candles,

sing,

hear words of hope,

be together – a community of strangers and friends united across all that separates us.

May today be the beginning of the possibility that we might meet the weariness, anxiety, fear, sadness, anger in our land and within us with the larger holding of a wider love, a deeper grounding, a present hope.

We keep you and our nation in our prayers in these changing times.

 

A Wider Hope

imageWhile political pundits tweet
that on the day after the election
nearly half of America will wake
believing we are doomed,
I hold a wider dream.

The possibility that indeed we will awake
remembering our souls,
remembering who we are to each other,
that is, our need,
across all the bounds that keeps us apart.

The possibility that it is not on the results that we depend
but upon what is at work in the unfolding –
this fall containing the bright blooms of spring,
this death holding the surprise of new life,
these challenges and possibilities in this present now.

imageThe possibility that this 240 year old experiment
called the United States of America
is an experiment worth remembering,
reworking, recalling to strength
to work together
for greater love, deeper justice, a wider hope.
Remember that it is in the struggle
that we are called to change.

Huddled here in the dug out
in the rain delay,
may we remember who we are
and what we live for –
that the game is not yet over –
perhaps, we’ve just begun
as on the day after the election
each must rise and ask –
What kind of person do I want to be?
What kind of relationship do I want with my neighbor?
What kind of nation do I pledge to dream together?

image

Peter Ilgenfritz
November 7, 2016

A Monster Calls

The monster showed up just after midnight.  As they do.  (A Monster Calls)

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Perhaps, like me, you also had terrible nightmares as a child.

Nightmares like the neighbor’s Golden Retriever driving a red lawnmower, chasing me across our front yard.  I’m trying to run away, but can barely move, struggle to put one heavy foot in front of the other…

Nightmares of lime green alligators waiting with sharp white teeth at the bottom of my bed.  Nightmares that I never remembered but that sent me barreling up the basement stairs, sure that someone was ready to grab me from behind.

Of course these many decades later, they all sound so silly.october-2016-046

But it was my Midnight Monsters that kept me far away from the Horror section at the library. I’ve never read Steven King and watched “Rear Window” through small gaps in my fingers while blocking my ears.  And why in the world I ever saw “The Shining”….

Halloween alas, has never been my favorite holiday.

Perhaps it’s my vivid imagination that could conjure up Monsters down every dark stairwell and hiding beneath my every bed.  Or perhaps, the Monsters have been so powerful in my life and imagination because it’s taken me so long time to turn and face them – to ask what it is they want of me.

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The Monster smashed his way into Conor’s room one night.  It was just after he’d turned 13, at the time when his Mom was in the midst of her treatments for some unnamed and terrible disease.

Conor.Conor….Somone outside his window was calling his name.

It wasn’t his usual nightmare – the one with the abyss, her hands slipping from his grasp, the horrible scream.   No, this was different.  This time he was sure he was awake and he could see it clearly –  the yew tree on the back hill was morphing into a giant monster that was now stepping closer and ever closer to his bedroom window.  It wasn’t the monster he’d been expecting.  This monster insisted that he’d come walking because Conor had called him….

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Perhaps it’s someone like Tyler Caskey, pastor of a small church in rural Maine, that’s the man that Conor grows into.   Now he’s old enough to not turn his fingers so quickly into fists, doesn’t bring to fruition his most terrible thoughts.  He’s too old now to even call them Monsters anymore.

And yet it is a Monster that shows up late one Saturday night in his dark study.  A Monster that inhabits him as he hammers out his sermon of rage against the people in his congregation that have been twisting lies into gossip.  Tyler’s Monster, like Conor’s, has come calling late this night to lead him to where he never wanted or planned to go – to his true sermon, to offer the only word he finally has to share the next morning with his congregation.

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Conor is the main character in Patrick Ness’s young adult novel, A Monster Calls, and Tyler the main character in Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Abide with Me.   They’re two of the best books I’ve read recently about the Monster that lies hidden in us all in unnamed grief and repressed anger.

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I now understand a bit more that northern European white males like Conor, Tyler and myself, are pursued by some particularly vile monsters that our ancestors have not known well how to meet.  Alas, our ancestors have carried out some particularly monstrous acts of violence born of repressed grief and rage, the fears that we have not been given tools to voice.  Other cultures than the one I have been born into, have met and named these matters better – as Monsters who are real and that need to be named and unmasked.

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Last week I met a real life Monster Tamer.   Robbie Paul is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and retired faculty member at Washington State University.  Paul’s life work and vocation has been to help find ways to meet the Monsters that dwell in our past histories – to help members of her community and family turn and listen to the voices of their ancestors.

As she explained to us, historically unresolved grief gets imprinted in our DNA, hides in a conspiracy of silence that keeps us stuck – what can’t be talked about can’t be put to rest.  In order for the Monster hiding in the silenced pain and abuse in our past histories not to come to life and lash out in self-abuse and violence in many forms against ourselves and others, we need to lie on the ground and listen to the ancestors.  We need to call forth the truth that has been hidden in our pasts and bring it to word in our mouths.  We need to do the rituals, transform the stories.  We need to bring our children and grandchildren to the broken, haunted places, tell them the stories, begin to meet and heal the wounds.  Robbie Paul knows our lives and the lives of our children depend on it.

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On the way home from the lecture last Wednesday night in the pouring rain, Andrea told us over and over again the instructions she has driven into her son’s memory – what he is to say, if and when the police pull him over.  She recites the words over and over to us like an incantation, like a shield she prays will keep him safe when she knows all too well that she cannot.  She admits she prayed desperately when he was ten that her beautiful Black boy would never grow any bigger, never develop muscles and beard, never grow up, so that the Monsters could never find him.

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The Monsters are real.  The monsters out there and within us all.  Oh, we post-modern and ever so rational people know better than to call them Monsters anymore.  We contain them and domesticize them, hide them behind fancy words like racisim, sexism – fear and hatred of “The Other” in whatever guise they are found.  We conceal them in our psychological jargon about unresolved grief, and unexpressed rage that lurk in the far corners of our silences and fears.

Call them what you will, they are Monsters nonetheless.  Perhaps we’d all be better off if we named then as such – monsters that need to be called out, turned and met, faced and known.  Monsters that will come again to lash and hurt, tear and rend us apart until we pay attention, until we put our ears to the ground and begin to listen to what they are trying to get us to hear and say.

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Perhaps outside your window, tonight, you may hear your name being called.

Perhaps, it’s time, long past time, for all of us to pull back the covers and climb out of bed and go out and meet the Monsters.  Perhaps, they are not what we expected them to be.   Perhaps they really have come not to harm but to heal  – to break forth in us that which we all most fear to know and name – the truth.

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As for me, while I’m not rushing out to read Mary Higgins Clarke, I’m actually looking forward to seeing “A Monster Calls” when it shows up at the movie theatre in mid-December.

Perhaps, now, at last, I’m a bit more ready to meet the Monsters, to turn and see at last what they’re trying to say all along.

Happy Halloween.

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imageAt the state fairs and in the country shows they call the competition “Sheep to Shawl.” It takes a team, who together shear a sheep, clean the fleece, spin the wool, and finally weave it into a shawl, all in a race against the clock. An average competition might set the time limit at two and a half or three hours. Amazing.

I have never seen a Sheep to Shawl competition. I can hardly imagine it. But I have seen my sheep sheared, and the fleeces turned into yarn, and the yarn turned into something new. It is just that when I have seen it done, it takes much longer. Sometimes years.

imageAlmost a decade ago now, my sister turned some wool from one of my sheep into a lovely vest that she knitted for me. That process took over a year and a half. But the end result was beautiful. She gave me the vest for my birthday, and I love it. About five years ago, when I returned from sabbatical, one of the famous knitters in my congregation gave me some slippers made from my sheep’s wool. I use them every day.

And just two months ago someone else asked for a skein of yarn from my sheep. John wanted to give it as a gift to a friend of his, who he knew loved to knit. I had some lovely brown wool that was unclaimed from last year so I gave it to him. Then I went off on my September trip to Wales and Scotland.

imageIn Wales I was staying at the home of the man who shears my sheep. Eifion and his wife Jane come over to Whidbey Island in March. Jane is from Whidbey, and visits family while she is here. Eifion spends the month shearing sheep.

When I returned from my time away, John handed me a little bag. “It’s a gift from Mieke,” he said, naming the friend to whom he had given that skein of wool. I opened it to discover a delightful little lamb, knitted with care, and a note.

image“I was a child in Europe during World War II,” Mieke wrote, “and I remember how hard those times were. As we grew,” she continued, “my mother would unravel our wool clothes and reknit them into something new that would fit our growing bodies. As soon as I held the wool from your sheep, those memories came flooding back. The aroma of lanolin coming off the wool as I wound it into a ball. The feel of the wool as it slipped through my fingers while I was knitting. The natural soft brown color of this wool. All of that reminded me of my family, all together, and doing what we needed to get by. Thank you for those moments of remembering.”

So she had used the wool that John had given her to knit three little lambs. One for her to keep. One for John. And one for me.

What a surprise. What a gift.

imageSometimes the results of our work are right at hand. They are seen quickly, and we can watch as our gifts are transformed. Other times, though, our gift passes through many hands. From the shepherd who has tended the sheep. From the sheep who are glad for the shearing, to be a bit lighter in the spring. From the shearer who earns some money to help his wife visit the home where she grew up. From a small fiber mill, set up by a woman starting a new life on the island. From a friend who knows a friend who likes to knit. And then back around again to the shepherd. We might wait for years for those gifts to come to fruition. The stories of the hands through which our gift passes can be profound. Some of them, if we knew them, would move us to tears, and they all remind us again how we are all woven together like a shawl.

May I continue to trust the giving.

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