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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Pace of God In Us (Or, Timing is Everything)

by Tom Pappas


Let’s see if an old joke works on paper. In actual life it takes two people and at least one rehearsal; and still it’s iffy. Here goes [note: the second person’s part is in italics.]:

“What’s the most important element in ‘timing’ comedy?”

Good one, huh? It’s OK if you don’t answer.

Laurel and I usually sit on the lectern side (left at WPC) and always near the front. We don’t have to be in the same seats but often are. It turns out that we tend to sit near the same neighbors. Let me relate the responsive reading practices of two of them.

Ray (may he rest in peace) always sat on the aisle in the fifth row, a few feet from us. He was not a shy man and was particularly adept at being the first one to read the bold lines in the worship bulletin. He was not only first, but early by a beat or two. In the length of a sentence, the rest of us would eventually catch up to where he was and we would end together.

Dorothy routinely sits one row behind us. She is a deliberate reader, with volume and expression, and tends to be a syllable or two behind especially on the Lord’s Prayer.

So, do I tell these anecdotes to mock believers who are different from me because, of course, I do it right? (Self-appointed standard-of-appropriateness that I am.)  Of course not, not at all!  I’ve just been thinking about the vastness of God and the differences in all of us, and how what’s right for one, timing wise, may not be right for the other. And I marvel at the simple things that take me out of my natural pace and rhythm.

I have a life goal of running a marathon but it will never happen; my left knee invited me to stop running three years ago. In better days, I was totally ready for the only half-marathon I ran and had easily run 10, 11 and 12 miles in the weeks before so what could be hard about 13.1 miles? Timing, that’s what!

I started the race in a group of runners too close to the front and their pace was not my pace. Because I went out too fast, by the mid-point I was toast. At 9 miles I was walking 100 steps and jogging 50 with walkers passing me. At the end, my goal was to finish ahead of the woman in the skirt. (Yes, it’s true and I apologize for my chauvinism.) She finished 30 yards in front of me and I was spent physically and emotionally.

Is timing the most important element in life? No, but I am confident of the importance of being careful to not be drawn away from the natural rhythm God seems to create each of us with. It might be that timing is a metaphor for the unique relationship God has for every individual.

Who are the Ray’s and Dorothy’s and women in skirts calling you to live within your unique rhythm with God?

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Theology of the Cross

by Alice Ling

I’m not sure what I expected, but then again you never know what will happen when you open a door and invite people to walk through it. Clearly, I underestimated the possibilities. I invited a few women to imagine options for color and creativity as part of our Lenten observance. They in turn invited members of the congregation to express their prayer through art. We handed out foam crosses, encouraged individuals and families to take them home, personalize them in whatever way appealed to them and bring them back. Throughout the season, our display grew as two dozen or more crosses found their way to the front of the sanctuary, offering color, creativity and personal expressions of the prayers in our midst. Prayers for peace, a drape of old lace, a hand knit shawl, stripes of the rainbow covenant, faces of God’s children around the world, bubble wrap to cushion the harshness of Christ’s suffering. The foam went out, and the prayers made their way in. Together, we journeyed through Lent, toward the cross and through to the other side and the celebration of Easter dawn.

I was deeply moved by the response: vibrant, vital,  and truly an intergenerational effort. I heard a few stories, but for the most part, I only imagined the prayers that were represented in the designing, gluing, painting, wrapping and offering that hung in front of us. I celebrated every time a parent handed me a cross and said, my child did this and wanted to make sure it got here. I admit I didn’t create one myself, but I said from the start that my art forms are more wordy and musical than visual. The other thing I did not do, throughout the season while folks in the congregation were creating, was find a way to talk about the cross.

Two years later and I’m still digging for words that articulate what this shape is, upon and around which we hung our prayers. The central symbol of the Christian faith, yes.  But why? What does it mean? And why do we wear it, display it, bow before it and hang our hearts’ deepest longings on it?
First of all, the cross is an ugly, disgusting symbol of human torture. Sort of like the gallows or hangman’s noose, except worse because death on a cross was slower and more inhumane. It was the accepted form of execution by the state for crimes so reprehensible that the perpetrator must forfeit his or her life and suffer the ultimate cruelty. It was a common means of execution in the days when Jesus lived, and both the biblical and objective historical records of the time give us every reason to believe it was the way in which Jesus was killed.

But none of that comments on the meaning that Christianity has infused into this gruesome symbol or why it has been elevated above all others. I hardly even know for certain anymore what traditional Christian theology says about the cross; these days, a lot of what is popular is soaked in blood and mounted on purpose. How many times have I heard it said that Jesus came to die, that the whole reason he ever walked this earth was so that he could hang, bleed, suffer and die for me and my sins? And how blasphemous do I sound if I say that just doesn’t cut it for me?

Everything I know and have come to believe about Jesus tells me that he didn’t come to this earth to die; rather he came to live, and to show us how to live a life that is grounded and rooted in God. He came because God passionately wanted to reach us and get our attention, and hoped that wearing skin and walking the road with us would help that happen. He helped us understand God’s love and longing for all God’s children, and showed us first-hand how God would have us live. Jesus walked on this earth with unfailing integrity, and from an unwavering commitment to love, justice, the needs and wholeness of all God’s people, and the truth. All too often, this world does not look kindly on such passion, and on one who will not kow-tow to the privilege and power the world elevates. Rather than listen to and learn from him, the powers that be sought to silence him. And Jesus refused to back down, even to save his own neck.

I do kneel before the cross, because I see there the tragic and all too predictable response to such a life. I see its ugly brutality, and marvel at the love that would empower a person to endure it all. I am profoundly humbled to know that there is a Loving Heart who knows my silence, caution, distractedness and countless other shortcomings, and yet reaches for me, saying, there is nothing I wouldn’t do for you. No place I wouldn’t go to help you believe in yourself even a smidgen as much as I believe in you.  Nothing I wouldn’t endure to bring about your healing and wholeness. If being with you and for you means facing humiliation and betrayal, suffering and death, so be it; you are worth that to me. I will accompany you through your valley of the shadow of death and grief, emptiness and weariness, so that we may walk together into the dawn of a new day. I marvel to be the recipient of such a Love, so exquisitely intimate and at the same time sweepingly universal, offered to each of us and to all of us.


I cherish the vision of those adorned foam crosses stretching across the chancel of that sanctuary, but I don’t think the cross will ever be my favorite symbol of the Christian faith or that I’ll be sporting cross jewelry any time soon. But I do affirm the debt I owe to One who was willing to go there for the sake of humanity. When we get to Friday in this long week, I will kneel again at the cross, giving thanks for the One who came and lived, suffered and died in the name and for the sake of such a wondrous love.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

“Unless you become as a child…”

by Paul Hettinga

Psalm 121:“I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Does my help come from the hills, or the sunset beyond the hills or the waves stretching out to the horizon? What is it about looking off to the hills or up into the sky at night or at a sunset on the beach at Nuevo Vallarta that attracts us? Or more to the point; inspires us, humbles us, puts us into a broader perspective of our place in the world around us. As I lay on the beach last month in Nuevo Vallarta I spent hours gazing at the waves, the ocean, the sky; watched the sea birds gliding, hunting, catching and eating only to repeat their cycle. I stood on the balcony looking off to the mountains to the south, the ocean to the west and watched the Iguana’s bask in the sun in the tree branches across from our deck. There were times when I lost myself in the looking…my mind wandering off into space someplace without much focus on anything and losing all sense of time and place.

I can remember as a child fishing with my dad in the bayous around Grand Haven, Michigan where I had similar experiences. I would lay face down with my head actually hanging over the bow on the deck of our little fishing boat as my dad drove it through the waves on our way to his favorite fishing spot. As I lay there watching the boat cut through the waves I would start seeing through the surface of the waves and instead of seeing the waves, I saw what appeared to me as the bottom of the bayou. It was as if the water disappeared and we were magically flying over the terrain beneath us unsupported by anything. I can still picture this and get that same feeling today as I remember this. I can remember ‘losing myself in that looking’ as well. It was as if all other reality was left behind and I was flying / floating in this imaginary world.

As you read this I hope that you are reminded of similar experiences in which you left the other realities of your life to touch, experience, connect and get lost in…if only for a moment. There is a kind of childlike transcendence in these moments.

Jesus consistently pointed to children to teach us how to understand and experience his new and coming Kingdom. “Unless you become as a child…” is a phrase that most of us know and to some degree understand, yet it is counter intuitive to the culture we live in. We live in a world of intelligence, science, reasoning, hard work, success and power - not exactly the attributes of childlikeness. Our success in this world is too often accomplished only through our devotion to the lifestyle contained within those words. Yet, as people who draw much of our identity from beyond, sometimes we long for more.

Take time to regularly find a beach or a balcony or a lake or the deck off the back of your house or your office window or a park with tree’s and sky, and look off into the nothingness beyond to imagine the God beyond all this - to sense the spirit of God, the creator, the sustainer and the finisher of all. Imagine for a moment that you are captured in that reality that is beyond. Become childlike in these ways for just a moment and you might find yourself leaning into that which is beyond words, beyond accurate description but yet has the power to transform our sometimes ordinary lives into the extraordinary reality that God imagined for us in our mother’s womb.

 Psalm 139:13-16 MSG
"Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb. I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration—what a creation! You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; you know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you, the days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day." 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Prayer for the Stories We Remember

by Angier Brock

In the late sixties, I attended a small women’s liberal arts college at which faculty members were nearly always accessible to students—and sometimes a little quirky. One, a crusty old bachelor named Dr. Brice, sometimes introduced a riddle into the middle of a lecture, promising “extra credit” to the first student who solved it. Here’s an example: Two perfectly preserved human bodies are found in a cave. You are able to identify them immediately. Who are they, and how do you know? 

One evening, a classmate and I were eating at The Elbow Room, a hamburger hangout a few blocks from our dorm. As we finished supper, I jumped up exclaiming, “I know! I know! Come on!”  Mystified but willing, she dashed with me to Dr. Brice’s apartment. He invited us in. I had gotten it right! (The answer is in the next-to-the last paragraph below.)   

All this is according to my classmate, who recounted the story last weekend at our 45th class reunion. For my part, I have no memory of it. I suggested that she had me mixed up with someone else. No, she insisted. She was certain I was the one.

Shared memories are amazing. There were some things that all of us attending our reunion could recall without question—though some of us had slightly different versions of the same event. Sometimes we could piece together a whole story by pooling fragments of what we remembered. Sometimes even combining shards of memories could not fill in all of what happened. Occasionally a specific memory could be unearthed or confirmed by memorabilia preserved in a scrapbook for four and a half decades. Sometimes—as in the story of Dr. Brice and the riddle—we simply had to trust our classmates’ memories. In each case, however, a rich and generous goodness came from our sharing. Speaking our memories helped us see ourselves and others more clearly and with more compassion. Reflecting on our memories brought us a greater understanding of who we were then and who we are becoming now.

In the coming weeks, as Christians observe Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter, and Jews observe Passover, some of the world’s most treasured memories of shared experiences will be shared in families, churches, and synagogues around the globe. Like those of my college classmates, those memories (and fragments of memories) sometimes differ slightly in how they recollect an event. They nevertheless have become stories we tell and re-tell, for they help us see ourselves and one another with compassion and appreciation. They help us understand our experiences. We hold them as sacred.

Memories of our own lives can be sacred, too. The story of Dr. Brice and the riddle? I’m still wondering why I didn’t remember it, but I delight in its return to me. The story reminds me of the goodness and generosity of that time. It gives me a sense of continuity between how my mind worked then and how it works now. It makes me feel seen and valued by the friend who held that story all these years. It gives me a sense of gratitude for her having shared it (particularly as she shared the answer to the riddle as well: Adam and Eve. Because neither had a belly button). It is a memory I will cherish, even as I consider to ponder it.  


In what stories of shared life or faith do you experience affirmation? Which of your memories feel sacred to you? Can you ask someone to remind you of a piece of your story you may have forgotten? Are you holding a memory of someone else’s story that it is now time to return to that person? Whatever the stories you remember or tell or hear in the weeks to come, may you find in them rich and varied blessings. 


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Wider Lens

by Doug Wysockey-Johnson

Here is what I notice about myself:  the busier I get, the narrower my focus.  The narrower my focus, the fewer people I think about, care about, or pray for.  It is a little like the definition of sin I learned back in 7th grade:  Sin is turning in on yourself. 

In our retreats on call, I often speak of the importance of saying no, clearing space, and pruning.  I do not believe that we are all called to care for everything and everyone.  I also believe that self care is critical to following a call.  But all to often I feel my focus narrowing to the point where functionally, it is all about me.

In this poem by Lumunos blogger Alice Ling, I hear an invitation to widen my lens in order to see the impact of my actions on others:

 TWO SIDES OF THE COIN
just back from a walk
my feet wet, hands cold
glasses in search of wipers
on the brink of a whimper
I remember the disturbingly dry land
craving this long, cool, refreshing drink
I revel in sparkling snowflake powder
ravishing beauty, snowshoe paradise
as my stomach churns
with thoughts of the hairpin turns
on snow packed dirt roads
I must navigate at day’s end
rarely can I have it both ways
cheap food likely means someone is underpaid
life supporting irrigation equipment drains
fish habitat and fisherman’s playground
upscale housing distributes eviction notices
to deer, moose,  families barely holding on
it’s not all about me
my comforts or convenience
I can never know the reach of ripples
set in motion by my life
but I can look through a wider lens
choose from a deeper heart

For many of us, Lent is a time to focus a bit more on our spiritual life.  Some give up something that is not healthy, spiritual or otherwise.  Others chose to take on a practice that might open their hearts more fully to God.  I’m going to try this one for a few days.  I’m going to see what happens when I widen my focus, and attempt to see the impact of my actions.  My hunch is there will be an “ouch” or two in there. But I hope also a deeper heart, more open to God’s presence in the world. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Be at peace

by Tom Pappas

Pastor Jen started me thinking on Ash Wednesday with the question, “Have you decided to do a Lenten discipline?” We were at a local coffee shop where she had made arrangements to impose ashes for people who approached her table. (It was nicely done.) I presented my forehead at about 8:30 and was her sixth sign of the cross.

Her question prompted me to a possible awkward moment where I had nothing to say because I hadn’t really given it much thought. (I don’t lead the way on this planning ahead phenomenon.) But I defied awkwardness this time and we segued into a discussion of previous Lents with the coffee incident of ’84. That was memorable.

She asked me to read Psalm 32, which I present here from The Message.

 Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—
    you get a fresh start,
    your slate’s wiped clean.
Count yourself lucky—
    God holds nothing against you
    and you’re holding nothing back from him.
When I kept it all inside,
    my bones turned to powder,
    my words became daylong groans.
The pressure never let up;
    all the juices of my life dried up.
Then I let it all out;
    I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.”
    Suddenly the pressure was gone—
    my guilt dissolved,
    my sin disappeared.
These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray;
    when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts
    we’ll be on high ground, untouched.
God’s my island hideaway,
    keeps danger far from the shore,
    throws garlands of hosannas around my neck.
Let me give you some good advice;
    I’m looking you in the eye
    and giving it to you straight:
“Don’t be ornery like a horse or mule
    that needs bit and bridle
    to stay on track.”
10 God-defiers are always in trouble;
    God-affirmers find themselves loved
    every time they turn around.
11 Celebrate God.
    Sing together—everyone!
    All you honest hearts, raise the roof!


Something happened.

I became aware of a seething anger in me that had to be dealt with. Oddly, as I re-read it, nothing in this passage connects today with the words with which I will describe as my Lenten Discipline. But I know God used the passage and the pastor to work with me.

I am was mad at politicians, who put party above the common good. I am was mad fellow humans who live their extravagant lives as if what they consume and/or waste today doesn’t matter for all of us tomorrow. I am was at Christians who hate in the name of God. I am was mad at world events. I am was mad.

Somehow the words “Peace” and “Peacemaker” came to me. I committed to be at peace, and be a peacemaker where I could.

So far, I continue to NOT be mad in this second week of Lent. I have been at peace and am looking to every situation for Christ’s way to be a peacemaker.

Be at peace yourself.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tender and Strong

by Lauren Van Ham



Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,
for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

Matthew 19:14, NIV

It crept up on me, the effect of what was happening.  Tears were wetting my cheeks before I understood why I was so moved.  I was watching the South African singing ensemble, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  For thirty minutes or more they’d been singing a series of simple, looping melodies, layered with the buttery harmonies and rhythms of their blended voices alone.  No other instruments, no fancy costumes.  Just nine men, standing side-by-side and singing….and occasionally, dancing – a simple swaying movement, a little jump, perhaps, and then, giggling.  Yes, giggling!  Nudging and joking with one another playfully.  The throng of these men, standing and singing with passion and joy, was unquestionably masculine and strong.  They exuded presence and confident leadership.  Their voices, solo and united, were commanding.  And their playful interaction with one another was refreshingly innocent, free from competition or any “poking fun at,” for the sake of a cheap win.

That’s when I got it – the powerful image of male energy, strong AND tender…. and how, in the Western world, it’s not modeled much.  It’s not limited to males, I suppose.  Afterall, as a female, I use a lot of my masculine energy to “push” through the world.  But it isn’t the only way, is it?

Years ago, when I was in India, I visited a shop where the shop-keeper had two posters on the wall behind him. On the left was Mahatma Gandhi, bare-chested and at his most frail.  On the right was Arnold Schwarzenegger, also bare-chested and wrapped in ammunition.  “Tell me about this,” I invited, gesturing to the posters.  The shop owner smiled and with an Indian nod explained, “Both strong men.  Different reasons.”

Indeed!

It is the second week of Lent, a period of spiritual discipline and determination.  It strikes me that the 40 days before Easter are an invitation to watch for and live with strength and tenderness.  A few examples….

The daffodils bravely pushing their way through the not-quite melted snow
The life of man who over-turned tables in a temple, and welcomed children to his side
A message that there is a love that is stronger even than death; a love that offers miraculous, sustaining hope to us all.

During Lent we are encouraged to give up or take on certain practices so that we might better appreciate the dimensions of Jesus’ willing sacrifice.  Certainly, if this is undertaken with a sense of martyrdom, we’ve missed the point.  The fine balance in our Lenten routines might then be to find strength in our resolve and joy (tenderness) in our effort.  What does this look like for you?  How, in your life, with your family, at your work, do you experience your strength and your tenderness?


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/