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Monday, October 13, 2014

Of Course It Matters -- But, Maybe Not

by Tom Pappas

Last week I sent out 39 individual emails to fairly new members of our church; here are three responses from folks, far younger than me, who I invited to join a 6-week book study.

“Thank you so much for the invite, but honestly I don't even have time to read for fun anymore ha-ha! Maybe in a couple months once my body's adjusted to my new weird hours I'll be able to get involved.”

“Thanks for the invite, but it will not work for me at this time.   I just can't add another thing into the schedule right now (my little ones are 1 and 3).  It does look like a really interesting book though!  I may have to pick it up on my own.”

“Thanks so much for the invitation!  It feels good to be asked.  Right now might not be the best time for us, we are getting used to being first-time parents (our son was born 7-29-14) and our schedule is pretty out of whack.  We would certainly be interested some time down the road though.”

There are common elements, don’t you think? Polite and grateful. Stressed and hopeful.
Their answers caused me to reflect on how it was for me (us) many years ago.

Who among us doesn’t always need to prioritize and choose? Good for us when we use our resources of time and energy in ways that pay off in the long haul. Good for us when we listen well and drill down to the bedrock commitments that make us better, our families better and the world better.

Since receiving the responses I shared above, I have been reminiscing my yes’s and no’s as a person their age and in their position. That was a busy time and it’s possible I sometimes said yes under the guise of, “I will be a better dad/husband/Christian”, if I take that seminar, lead that class, or go on that retreat. I cannot say if that is, in fact, what happened.

Turning back to the present, it is my sincere prayer that my respondents who don’t do the study get full value in not doing it. May they be the best moms, dads and new employees on crazy schedules that they can possibly be.

Also in the present I argue with myself about the merits of supporting the institution and being a team player, or letting others be that person while I take care of what I think is a wiser personal choice. Truth be told, most of the time that I take one for the team, it ends up being worthwhile and I don’t regret it.

Of this I am completely sure. God is trustworthy. Jesus is the finest example of how to live and how to be fully alive. Trusting God offers assurance that God’s will can be achieved with either of two good choices – and don’t we all know stories of God redeeming lousy choices.   

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Prayer for Our Supersubstantial Bread

by Angier Brock

Give us this day our daily bread. How many times have I prayed those words, thinking that “daily bread” meant just that—a day’s worth of ordinary, every-day food for physical sustenance? It reminds me of the Hebrews who, as they wandered in the wilderness, were given manna to eat—but just enough for that day, for manna did not keep longer.  

I can also read “daily bread” metaphorically, so that it becomes an allotment of spiritual sustenance—a kind word, a timely sermon, a song, a glimpse of the beauty of the natural world, or any other experience that offers hope or other provision for facing whatever the day calls me to. In both physical and spiritual senses, the phrase “daily bread” seems straightforward enough.

But it turns out that the Greek word epiousios, which is the word behind the familiar “daily” in most translations of the Lord’s Prayer, is a rarer word than we might think. It appears only twice in the Bible, once in Matthew and once in Luke, in both cases attributed to Jesus in his instructions on prayer. It may have been found one other time in fragmentary writings from ancient Greece—but even that is debatable. And so it is a mysterious word; no one knows what it really means. “Daily” is perhaps as good a guess as any—but it is only a guess. St. Jerome (ca. 347—420 CE) had a different guess. He translated epiousios as “supersubstantial.”  

I discovered all this the other day while reading a book on the history of Christianity, and it stopped me in my tracks: Give us this day our supersubstantial bread? Wow! Really?  

I investigated further. Sure enough, though the internet, I found not only confirmation of what I had read but also various theological discussions about possible meanings of “supersubstantial.” (I confess that as a modern American, the phrase “super-sized” — as in, “Do you want fries with that?” — briefly crossed my mind.) I commend those discussions to you for your own further investigation.  
I also turned to my dictionary. The adjective substantial can mean real, not imaginary; ample, even hefty; considerable in degree. The prefix super, meaning over and above, greater than normal, even excessive, enlarges any word it is paired with. You can mix and match the various meanings to come to your own understanding of “supersubstantial.” 

But no matter what you take it to mean, “supersubstantial” differs from “daily.” “Daily” (which has Old English and Germanic roots rather than Latin ones) refers to frequency and perhaps reliability of occurrence. As far as I am concerned, daily bread is miraculous in and of itself. But it is enlarged ever further by “supersubstantial,” which refers to quality and/or quantity.  

Why had I not known that possible translation before?

And now that I know, what difference does knowing make?

I have just begun thinking about this matter, and I suspect that it is the kind of puzzle with which I could occupy myself for quite some time. Suddenly an old, familiar phrase has, like bread itself, been broken open.   

At the very least, it points afresh to mystery. If something so surprising could be hiding in a single word in a prayer I have prayed for more than six decades, who knows what might come next? And from now on, while my lips are saying, “Give us this day our daily bread,” in my heart of hearts, I will be pondering “supersubstantial.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

We are a Continuum: Honoring Our Ancestors

by Lauren Van Ham
We are a continuum. Just as we reach back to our ancestors for our fundamental values, so we, as guardians of that legacy, must reach ahead to our children and their children. And we do so with a sense of sacredness in that reaching.
Paul Tsongas
Those who have died, have never never left; The dead have a pact with the living. They are in the woman's breast, they are in the wailing child. They are with us in the home, they are with us in the crowd. The dead have a pact with the living. 
                                           Sweet Honey in the Rock (lyrics)*

For most Earth-based Traditions, the prayer practices include the Ancestors.  Consider, the Native Americans who often pray in the name, “All My Relations,” honoring all beings alive, and those returned to the Earth. Or Dia de los Muertos, in Mexico, when every November 1st, families visit their loved ones’ graves, hosting celebrative picnics, affirming the talents of their deceased relatives, and decorating sugar skulls and commemorative skeletons to embrace life and to honor death. 

When I first learned of these practices, I felt intrigued, mostly because in my culture, death was handled in a reserved fashion, in churches and funeral homes.  The dead were remembered and mourned, but not called upon.  Working in a Catholic hospital provided extra nudges.  I still smile when I think of the day the copy machine kept jamming and Brother Anthony, a warm and gentle Franciscan monk offered, “If you’re open to it, we can pray to St Jude of Hopeless Causes.  He sometimes can help with these matters.”  We prayed to St Jude – and I liked it - but I still felt cautious.  I didn’t want to be disrespectful or accused of misappropriation, borrowing incorrectly from a culture that wasn’t my own.

Then, a few years ago, I took a class on community-building with Sobonfu Some', a wonderful woman and powerful teacher who hails from Burkina Faso in West Africa.  Sobonfu said, “If you think the unemployment lines are long down here, you should see the ones our ancestors are standing in!  They are waiting to be asked.  Please!  Call on them!” 

Suddenly I got it.  I began thinking of the talents and wisdom, lying fallow in my memory of those recently gone, or long dead.  And I felt a sense of communion, immediately, when I considered how I might call on the courage of Harriet Tubman, the brilliance of Einstein, the creative genius of Jim Henson, the grace of Ginger Rogers…or the loving lap of my Grandmother..and so on.

And here’s another thing!  Our ancestors are not only in the past; we can also call on the ones yet to Be – the brave ones arriving on Earth to lend their fresh eyes and new life to shed light on our troubling patterns and trickiest problems.
With which ancestors do you most wish to take a walk or share a meal? 

Here’s something to try: as the month of Halloween approaches, along with Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day, consider your loved ones and the ones you’ve not known personally.  Set out their pictures; light a candle; include them in your prayers.  Invite your friends to talk about their ancestors, and be sure to pray for the ones still on the way.

Let’s employ our communion of saints – ask them to look out for us, remind us of what’s important, invite their wisdom as we implement our own desire and vision for stronger communities. 

About Lauren: Lauren lives in Berkeley, CA.  She serves as Dean at The Chaplaincy Institute (ChI), an interfaith seminary and tends her private practice as a spiritual director.  You can read Lauren’s blog at: http://www.laurenvanham.com/

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reflection and Ethics at the Hardware Store

by Doug Wysockey-Johnson

I had one of those small yet big moments at the hardware store the other day.  The story is too long to tell in detail, but the synopsis is this:  A week previous I had been in to purchase fencing for the backyard.  Due to the cashier’s error, and unknown to me at the time, I underpaid.  (He rang me up for the one roll of fencing I brought to the counter, not the 2 rolls I told him I was taking.)  Now it was a week later.  I was back, and as a new cashier gave me the price, I realized the error. 

So there was this moment, just seconds really, where a decision-making process was unfolding internally.  My first reaction was to let the whole thing slide.  “Their mistake was a few days ago…..they have no idea…….I’m not positive what happened……no harm no foul…..etc. etc.”  I was leaning pretty heavily toward not mentioning the error, especially since it now turned out that the fencing I was buying was more than I thought.  All this internal processing was happening in the few seconds it took to swipe my card and punch in my PIN. But before I hit the last number, I decided to speak up:

“Dan, I think I know what happened.  When I was in here the other day, your cashier charged me for one roll of fencing, not two. If that is the case, I guess I owe you some money.”

Dan smiled and said, “Yep, you owe us another $37.  And by the way, thank you for your honesty.”

As I walked out of the hardware store, I felt less proud about doing the right thing than sobered by how long it took me to get there.

The Power of Reflection

Here is what I know about myself.  My first instinct is not always my best instinct.  In school, teachers often said, “trust your first response.”  That may be true in test- taking, but my default position is very often towards self-preservation, and self-interest.  Whether that is the so-called ‘lizard brain’ responsible for fight or flight, original sin or what, I have no idea.  I just know that frequently my immediate response is not always my best response. 

I guess that is why I believe so much in the power of reflection.  Whether it is a full day away, or a few seconds at the cash register, I often come closer to the person I want to be after I have been willing to pause.  It is almost like in those few seconds (or minutes or hours), I am able to remember who I am, or what I was taught as a child or who I want to be. I find the person who is more than self-preservation, more than self-interest, more than self first.  My truer self is in there, but it takes some time to find me.

Speed in work has compensations.  Speed gets noticed.  Speed is praised by others.  Speed is self important.  Speed absolves us.  Speed means we don’t really belong to any particular thing or person we are visiting and thus appears to elevate us above the ground of our labors.  When it becomes all-consuming, speed is the ultimate defense, the antidote to stopping and really looking.  If we really saw what we were doing and who we had become, we feel we might not survive the stopping and the accompanying self appraisal.  So we don’t stop, and the faster we go, the harder it becomes to stop

                                    David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea, p. 117

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Prayer for Muddling Along

by Angier Brock

Recently, in a moment some might call insanity or hubris but which may also have been an act of faith, I agreed to make a box cushion seat cover, complete with piping, to help a friend who was re-upholstering a small sofa. I do not sew very much. In fact, I have had an uneasy relationship with sewing machines for most of the five and a half decades since I first learned to use an old treadle Singer in home economics class. (For the record, I was in the seventh grade—pretty much the worst year of my then-young life).

Sewing machines themselves have certainly come a long way since 1959. The one I am currently using, borrowed from my granddaughter who is now the age I was then, is a super duper amazing digital model. After several hours with the owner’s manual, I figured out how to thread it and how to fill the bobbin. I am still learning what its various communicative beeps and error messages mean. But it is a fabulous instrument. It even threads its own needle—a boon for my aging eyes and sometimes stiff fingers.

However, even a wondrous sewing machine cannot factor out all human error. It cannot ensure that I have measured the pieces and figured the seam allowances correctly, let alone cut the fabric (and matched the checked pattern) accurately. Nor can it guarantee that the piping stays where I want it, even after I have pinned it into place. And so I continue muddling along with the project. To date, I have ripped out more stitches that I have let stay. In so doing, many of all the words I have muttered to myself would not be recognized by most people as prayer.

As I write this, I cannot say for sure how this project will turn out. My friend has assured me that the sofa cushion cover need not be perfect—as it certainly will not be. But how well or poorly it will fit, how flat or puckered the piping might be, whether or not the pattern of checks aligns with the checks on other parts of the sofa, and ultimately how acceptable the cushion will be not only in my friend’s eyes but also in mine—those things remain to be seen. 

Much of life’s journey is like that. We don’t always know how our friendships, marriages, jobs, volunteer activities, or even tonight’s dinner will turn out. Though we are constantly learning, we never learn it all, and we are prone to forgetting our earlier lessons. Sometimes we choose to give up. Other times, in what may truly be an act of faith, we choose to muddle along, despite how things look.

When it is possible to do so, I am all for keeping the faith by muddling. Sometimes we do so alone, though if we are lucky, we may find a good muddling guide or guide book. Life, of course, doesn’t always allow for “do-overs.” Sometimes when we rip the stitching out of something that didn’t come together quite the way we had hoped, the fabric gets torn. Sometimes it cannot be mended. Sometimes the mending leaves scars we know are there, even if we cover them with a well-placed throw pillow.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What Are You (Not) Doing this Labor Day Weekend?

by  Doug Wysockey-Johnson

What Are You (Not) Doing this Labor Day Weekend?

Ok folks, time to plan ahead.  We have a holiday weekend coming up, and for most of us that means a little extra time off.  It is a golden opportunity to make a deposit in your spiritual wellness bank, a deposit you will need to draw from in the future.  It may be a day later or a month later, but eventually, life is going to get stressful.  That is what life does.

The good news is that you have lots of options. There is a growing body of research that provides data about the ways our bodies and our spirits are renewed. Here are just a few of the things that have been proven to increase our wellness:
  • spend time outdoors;
  • gather with good friends or family;
  • de-clutter your house;
  • rest;
  • do something for someone else;
  • worship;
  • exercise;
  • shut down the computer;
  • play with your dog;
  • laugh;
  • pray

These are all great ideas, not only for a holiday weekend, but for Sabbath in general.  Sabbath is that Judeo-Christian practice that emerged from the notion that even (and because!) God rested on the seventh day, so should we.  At the heart of Sabbath and spiritual wellness is the idea that there is nothing more you have to do or be.  As Walter Brueggemann writes in his excellent book “Sabbath as Resistance

On the Sabbath:
            You do not have to do more.
            You do not have to sell more.
            You do not have to control more.
            You do not have to know more.
            You do not have to have your kids in ballet or soccer.
            You do not have to be younger or more beautiful.
            You do not have to score more.

So be intentional about your spiritual wellness this Labor Day Weekend. Make a plan, block the time, place the call, think ahead, phone for a reservation, and generally do what you need to do (or not do) to make a deposit in your spiritual wellness bank this weekend.  It will not be wasted time.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

If this is not a Place…

by  Paul Hettinga

Recently I have been listening to Ken Medema’s Podcasts “Inside the Songs” as I’m walking in the morning. Many of us know Ken and have seen and heard him in concert over the years. Like me, I’m sure most of you find him to be inspiring both in his life and his message through music.

On his podcast titled “Places” he plays this wonderful song “If this is not a Place” and for some reason this morning that brought me to tears. I should say that I get teary eyed pretty quickly these days, but that’s another story for another day.

It’s been nearly 9 months since I have retired – and during this time, I have tried to devote myself to answering the question of  “Who does God want me to be or what does God want me to do with this next chapter of my life?” I’ve read a number of things, I’ve kept a journal, I’ve tried to be quieter than normal and I’ve certainly prayed more fervently. I’m currently starting to meet with a spiritual director to give me a little life coaching with a spiritual perspective.

However, I don’t have much good news to report yet. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love all my free time and I use it to do things I’m interested in. But as for answering this question, I’m beginning to doubt the sincerity of my own questions at this point. I wonder if God is thinking the same thing.

And yet, I’m continuing to stay in this place and to be more present to God’s quiet nudges that come in many forms instead of filling up my life with lots of other places, responsibilities and activities. It’s a little threatening to my ego and there are days I just think I’m being lazy, unproductive and should get off my dead butt and get out there again.

But somehow deep within my heart, I know the place I need to be right now is this quiet listening place within the core of who I am, and it’s this place where God will dwell in me and gently transform me into the image he wants me to be.

Ken doesn’t answer the question “If this is Not a Place” – but he certainly suggests a whole lot of places that won’t help us to know ourselves and be known by God. Take a few minutes to listen to the You Tube of Ken performing this wonderful song.

May God bless you richly in your own pursuit of authentic living, 

If This Is Not A Place. . .
   Ken Medema

Click here to download a You Tube video of Ken performing this:

If this is not a place where tears are understood,
Then where shall I go to cry?
And if this is not a place where my spirit can take wings,
Then where shall I go to fly?

I don't need another place for trying to impress you
With just how good and virtuous I am.
I don't need another place for always being on top of things;
Everybody knows that it's a sham.

I don't need another place for always wearing smiles,
Even when it's not the way I feel.
I don't need another place to mouth the same old platitudes;
Everybody knows that it's not real.

So if this is not a place where my questions can be asked,
Then where shall I go to seek?

And if this is not a place where my heart cry can be heard,
Where, tell me where, shall I go to speak?
So if this is not a place where tears are understood,
Where shall I go, where shall I go to fly?

-- Ken Medema

artwork by Alicia Drakiotis, Marlborough, NH