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december-009It’s the Longest Night of the year and in a few hours we will gather here at University Congregational United Church of Christ as people will do in many other places, to light candles for where we need hope on this longest and darkest of nights.

I wish I had something big to offer, something large enough to meet the holes and the losses that this season is for some of us.  And yet the gifts of these holiday seasons are small.  Gifts that can seem all so inadequate, yet all that we are given.

What can I offer, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.

If I were a wise one, I would do my part;

But what can I give you?  Give you my heart.

(In the Bleak Midwinter, verse 4

Christian Rossetti, alt.)

december-2014-021I have come back to singing “In the Bleak Midwinter” often this season.  It seems to be a carol written for times like ours.

And so I offer you a few small things, little things for the meeting of these days.   Mostly, and most importantly, my heart and prayer goes out to you and is with you this season, and will be with you these days. And I offer to you, all that I have, a few stirrings of my heart.

Like some of you, there have been years that I would just assume this holiday season be over.  Like many of you, there are years that I have looked back on many losses of many kinds.  Years that it feels a bit beyond me to imagine singing, “Joy to the World!  The Lord is come!” on Christmas Eve, just a few days hence.  How will I be ready to sing out “joy” this year?  In the Christian tradition, these weeks before Christmas are marked as Advent, a time of emptying as we prepare to make room for the Christ child.  And oh, we all have been emptied of so much this Advent season.  Lost so much.  Had so much taken from us and fear more being taken.  Deaths, job loss, terrorism, war, uncertainty, health crises, financial stresses…the list goes on.

In the various faith traditions of this season, little lights are lit – on the menorah, on the Advent wreath.  In Christianity, we traditionally light a candle each of the four weeks before Christmas – the candle of hope, the candle of peace, the candle of love, the candle of joy.  And finally the Christ candle on Christmas Eve, a sign and celebration that God is present here with us.   Just little lights.  And little words to meet the still growing darkness of these days:  “hope”, “peace”, “love”.  Words that seem all too fragile or even a little beyond us, like “joy”.

december-2014-043I remember this year, the little gifts that were given in times of crisis and change.

In time of war, enough oil given for the lamps.

In the midst of a season of oppression and death, a little child is born.

Little gifts that come in sad and trying days and times.

december-2014-036Not big gifts, but little lights and little words to meet us in these days. Little gifts I can often miss if I try to look for something too big these days.  Little gifts I can walk right by, stumble over if I don’t keep watch for them. Little things.   But little things that finally are what we are given, sometimes all we are given and that even can be enough.  Enough to meet us today.  Right now.  Where we are.  Not enough to take away the grief and pain now and forever, but enough for now.

And that is the hope and prayer of this season I fall back to.

That little things be given to us – little signs of holding and hope and love each day.

And that we live in the hope and promise that tomorrow little things will be given as well.

Enough to meet us for today.

Enough to meet us for tomorrow.

december-2014-032I pray that we all may keep our eyes open, our hearts open, our wonder open to the surprise that comes in little gifts.

Little gifts that even, and finally, may be the greatest gifts of all.   Gifts that are sparks of the eternal – those gifts of that hope, and faith, and love that cannot but spark out and be found in many surprising ways.  Even now.  Even tonight.

There are times when

all the stars are torn from our skies,

and the morning will not come.

We try to make our way in unlit passages,

frightened, desperate and despairing.

We cannot see,

for wherever we turn

the night continues.

And yet, it is

into this impenetrable night

that the Child is born.

Tearing through the seams of darkness,

the Morning Star appears

in our eyes and in our hearts.

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great Light.

( “Morning Star” from Searching for Shalom by Ann Weems.)

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Unconquered Light

imageIn less than a week now, the northern hemisphere will arrive at the winter solstice. This is the point at which the planet tips us back toward the sun and the darkness which has been lengthening for months begins to retreat. In the middle of the fourth century, this also became the season when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christmas is coming.

But even before there was a “Christmas,” human beings knew the rhythm of the planet. Folks noted the solstice and marked it with celebration. Even before we Christians proclaimed in our stories all the ways that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it, other traditions also affirmed that human vision. Before the Roman emperor Constantine celebrated a December 25th Christmas in 336, the Romans celebrated the solstice as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the “birthday of the unconquered sun.”

imageOn the farm, we are waiting for the light. Nighttime temperatures are below freezing, and I get up in the dark to begin my chores. The ice in the water troughs has to be broken up every morning these days for the sheep to get their morning drink. The metal water font set out for the chickens was frozen shut this morning. I had to take it inside and run hot water on it to get it open so my hens could drink. It will freeze again tonight and I will repeat the ritual tomorrow.

In Seattle, my congregation looks forward to this solstice time in our particular “Christmas” way, with the proclamation of Good News to All, and Peace on Earth, with shepherds watching flocks and magi traveling from the East to honor a newborn king. We are preparing for three worship services on Christmas eve, including a pageant where everyone who wants to gets to play a role, just by showing up.

I know that the return of the sun and the lengthening of days will not change things immediately. January and February will still be cold. and in fact most likely even colder than December. In our human world, darkness seems to be everywhere. As I write today, there is horrific suffering in Aleppo, and throughout Syria, in places not far from where Jesus was born. Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Gaza all know pain. In our own country, we are witnessing a significant rise in hate crimes since the November election, and the prospect that much of what we have understood to be the “common good” will be ignored or even worked against by the incoming administration. As our work to limit human impact on climate change, on the warming of our planet, is threatened, even our sense of the “return of the sun” seems different.

imageBut our solstice observations and our Christmas celebrations still serve to remind me that the return of light is inevitable. We humans are just one part of the rhythm of our world. We are called to be children of the Light. We will still rise, even in the dark, to do our winter chores. Water, as the Protectors at Standing Rock remind us, still needs to be attended to. Just like in our December 24th pageant, everyone who wants to gets to play a role, sometimes just by showing up. This year, with December 25th falling on a Sunday, the day actually named for the precious star that gives our planet life, may our work ahead be energized by our stories of unconquered light.

Along the Road

imageSome of the best gifts of travel are the surprising gifts of the people I meet along the way.

And in this season of Advent when we are waiting for the One we are told is coming, I remember the short conversations, chance encounters on sidewalks, in fields, at the side of the road, over café counters – the surprising gift of who I have met along the way this year.

People like Justin staffing the famous “Elsie Volunteer Fire Department Biscuits and Gravy” Food Tent out in what feels like the middle of nowhere on the “Hood to Canal Relay Race.”

It’s early this Saturday morning, recovering from my last run, and while looking for something to eat, I spot an unusual sight – a small boy in a firefighter uniform.

 

img_5548Are you are a firefighter? I ask.

Yes, he says.

I’m Peter.

Justin.

We shake hands.

What year are you in school?

I’m going into fifth grade.

Fifth grade?  And you’re really a firefighter?

Yes!  And my sister Rebecca is too.  She’s going to be a sophomore in high school.  We’re part of the Elsie Fire and Rescue.  Our Dad is the Captain.

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That’s just incredible.  You mean you really put out fires and all that?

He smiles.  Yes, car and forest fires and all that.  I can’t go into buildings until I’m older.

You must be the youngest firefighter around!

Maybe? 

He smiles.

Hey, I write a blog post and I wonder if I could take your picture and share your story.

Sure!

Later, just before we leave, Justin comes bounding down the field.

Hey Peter, do you like the Seahawks?

september-2016-018It’s meeting people like Mark Bryant – sitting next to me at lunch at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.  I’ve come here after the worship service is over to pick up Tsuneko – and indulge in the great coffee hour lunch they serve here including Mel’s famous chili today.

I sit down next to Mark.  I’m told he just won a national championship for weight lifting.

I introduce myself to learn not only that he won the national championship but had started weight lifting in his thirties and was now 58.  And had his hip replaced a few years back.

“You had your hip replaced and weight lift!”  I exclaim.

“Yes, most people say they can’t believe I do it.”

september-2016-020Mark does it.  And as I hear snippets, highlights of his life I hear about a man who keeps doing it – keeps moving forward into life.

“How did you find this church?”  I ask.

“Because of…” and he points out three elders in the room.  “They are all in an exercise class I teach in Rainier Beach. They invited me to church a few months ago.”

Connections, encounters, surprises at lunch or at the gym. Perhaps such meetings that can turn a day, open our imagination are around us every day.

He hands me his two medals.

“They weigh a ton!” I exclaim.

Thanks Mark!  Thanks Justin!  You’re for Real – and really inspiring to me.

Inspiring me to get out on the road and find the story, meet the one waiting to meet me in the faces of those along the way.

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Jesus, help us this Advent to see you in the faces of those we meet out on the road today.  Amen  

 

 

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.

 

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