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Monday, December 17, 2012

What Is Right With Organized Religion: Reflections on Newtown

by Doug Wysockey-Johnson

Like many people, I spent the weekend with a kind of emotional schizophrenia.  There was shopping to do, and holiday events, and children with Christmas adrenaline coursing through their veins.  And then there were the children and adults of Newtown who wouldn't be celebrating Christmas this year at all. In social settings and check out lines, we adults either awkwardly talked about it or we didn't   But either way, as one friend said,   “It isn’t just the elephant in the room.  It is the elephant pressing on our chests.”

In this kind of state, I stumbled into church on Sunday.  And there I was reminded of what is right with organized religion. My tradition is protestant Christian, but I suspect Jews in their synagogues and Muslims in their mosques experienced something similar.

In the Christian tradition, it was the third Sunday of advent, the Sunday given to themes of joy and rejoicing.   How can we possibly do this with the elephant of Newtown pressing on our chests?    I have heard many times that the word religion comes from the root “ligio,” which means to connect. (Think ligament.)  Maybe that was it.

In church on Sunday I was helped to connect the pain in my heart with the ancient tradition from which Christianity began. Maybe it was my pastor’s heroic and successful efforts to speak the word that might bridge our fragile state and the promises of God.  She didn't offer easy answers, but simply held out the assurances of a God who would be present in pain. Maybe it was the carols that speak honestly  of fear and sorrow, but also of hope.  Maybe it was simply being together, in community.  This Sunday when we looked at one another and said, “The peace of Christ be with you,” we really meant it. Whatever it was, it helped.

There is a lot of talk these days about what is wrong with organized religion.  On Sunday I was reminded of what is right with it.

Ed. Note:
If you would like to mail sympathy cards or letters of support and solidarity to the school, the school address appears to be:
Sandy Hook Elementary School
12 Dickenson Drive
Sandy Hook, CT, 06482

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Tis the Season...To Forgive

by Tom Pappas

I woke up the morning of 12-12-12 to the sound of a smoke detector. Maybe the numerologists and Mayans were on to something.  Upon further review, the sound turned out to be a nose-whistle leak in my CPAP mask. Disaster averted.

Are you able to laugh at yourself?  It’s fun for me when I get to tell the story and it doesn’t upset the irrational standards I set for myself.  I think this nose-whistle event is a hoot; it doesn’t bother me.

There are about 5 stories from my past that I never laugh at and when I relive them in my brain I physically cringe.

One is from college days and I relay it because this week while driving, something jogged my memory and I went back there. Body cringe and audible groan included.

I am a good sign maker and a member of the local business community – insurance man - asked me to paint the sign on the glass door of his office. I nailed the graphics perfectly. From a distance his door was a thing of beauty. Up close it was obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. The wrong paint on a glass surface made each letter a 3-D nightmare of dabs and ridges. Each time I picture it I wonder how many times my friend rolled his eyes.

A few years later I was working for a non-profit Christian organization and got to share the ministry with a lunch meeting of Kiwanis. It took slides of camp. Lots of them.  My still vivid image of that room of very polite Kiwanis shifting in their seats at 1:30 indicated they were not nearly as excited about camp as I was. It didn’t pan out as a fundraising opener. Cringe and groan.

I spent every Wednesday evening for 14 years with a wonderful team of believers doing prison ministry. One salient comment many men would say was, “I know God forgives me of my crime, but I can’t forgive myself.”

What is it about my (our) nature that enables us to make standards more strict than the God of forgiveness? I will likely end my life without ever being incarcerated, but I am nonetheless emotionally imprisoned by these haunting faux pas (Is there a plural? Search indicates there is none.). I have always believed Christ’s visit to our planet has something to say about that. 

Join me this season remembering to forgive: others and especially our self.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Guest Blog: Just Another Mediocre Miracle

She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger – there was no room for them to stay in the inn.  ~ Luke 2:7

by Neely Stansell-Simpson 

December of 2009 was the Christmas my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was also my daughter Sophia’s first Christmas; she was then eight months old. It’s been a tough slog through the Valley of the Shadow, a journey so maddeningly out of my control, I am often forced to pry my white-knuckled, control-freak fingers off of the steering wheel and let others drive.  

For me, the journey of motherhood is interwoven with the story of my mother’s cancer. It’s been all at once, overwhelming and ugly and beautiful and filled to the brim with mediocre miracles, which is the story of faith in a nutshell: Not a compilation of transcendent mountaintop experiences, but a muddling along through the desert with manna here and there to keep you going. The whole thing is so horribly ordinary that if you get too busy looking for the shiny mountaintop experience, you’ll miss the rusty, beat-up, tear-stained extraordinary.  

One such experience occurred in June when my mother returned home from a month long hospital stay after her most recent skirmish in her battle with cancer. A growth was removed, and her small intestine was rerouted to an angry hole about three inches to the right of her bellybutton. The medical term is ileostomy, and for the first few weeks at home she lay weak and pale in her bed, with eyes like big blue marbles staring out of a body that had lost twenty pounds in the course of two weeks. Her voice was hoarse and gravelly when she spoke; too much movement left her breathless. The person I counted on, even at the age of thirty, to be my mom needed mothering. 

It was a tough recovery with days and nights of round the clock medical care required of my father and me. There was not enough of us to spare for three-year-old Sophia who was growing frustrated and clingy. She knew her grandmother was sick, but didn’t understand why my time with her was cut short, why her normally energetic grandparents couldn’t play, or why she only spoke by phone to her daddy who was at home, three hours away. 

Sophia’s frustration grew as nurses came and went, having solemn conversations, and shutting the adults in her life behind closed doors while she was left alone with her toys in the living room. She began to act out even though I tried as best I could to explain the situation in three-year-old terms. She threw tantrums, clung to my legs, intentionally disobeyed, and even hit me a couple of times. She wouldn’t go to sleep at night, but would lay awake until well past midnight, waiting for me to slip into bed beside her so that she could have me all to herself. 

I was exhausted, desperate, and annoyed with Sophia. But worse than that, I felt guilty. My not-good-enough-ness was kicking in. Surely, a better mother would know what to do. A better mother would know how to gracefully juggle it all. I, however, was awkwardly winging it and failing. I was a mess

“Be patient with her,” my mother said. “This is stressful for her too, and she’s dealing with it the only way she knows how.”

I nodded, knowing Mom was right even as I considered selling Sophia to gypsies. But patience is not my strong suit, unfortunately, and Sophia’s behavior continued to deteriorate, as did my sanity. 
Finally, one day, in a fit of exhaustion, I gave up the wrestling match. Sophia was clinging to my legs, and begging not to be left alone, but I needed to go into my mother’s room to change her ostomy bag. It was one of those moments when my clenched fingers were peeled off the steering wheel, and Grace came rolling in, driving a beat up ice cream truck, and peddling mediocre miracles for the price of giving up control. It was the moment I stopped shutting Sophia out, it was the moment I decided we would face the messiness of life together. 

I opened the door, and let Sophia come in to watch while I performed the painful change of my mom’s ostomy bag, something I was sure would scar Sophia for life. But Sophia just stood on the stool at the foot of my mother’s bed, calmly surveying the scene. 

“Oh Granna,” she clucked in a matronly little voice, “you have a very big booboo. Does it hurt?” 
My mother chuckled. “Yes, it does hurt,” she answered truthfully. “But if you hold my hand it will feel better.” 
Sophia beamed from ear to ear, then hopped down from the stool, and scurried over to my mother’s side. She became the official hand holder, which remained her job the rest of our stay. In that moment a little light shown in through the darkness. Sophia’s behavior improved once we stopped trying so hard to shield her from the messiness of life, which of course meant we stopped trying so hard to shield ourselves. 
As I muse over the messy journey of motherhood and cancer, I often find myself thinking about the Christmas Story. Not the part about the angels or the wise men or the shepherds. No, the part about Jesus being born in a barn. 

We try to sanitize it with chubby cheeked cherubs, fluffy white sheep, and a smiling, well-rested Mary draped in blue; but the reality of birth in a first century Judean barn, to an impoverished, Jewish teenager in Roman occupied Palestine, is not a pretty picture. I wonder if Mary herself ever felt so overcome with it all that she gave in to moments of insanity.  

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that barn was a stinking mess of animal poop, blood, and afterbirth. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that Mary was not good enough, not prepared enough, and heaven knows the situation was totally out of control. It was one big, desperate mess. Yet this is where God chooses to be born. God dives down right into the middle of all of that animal shit and human inadequacy. Then mediocre miracle of mediocre miracles, Grace gets to take the wheel in the form of a Jewish baby born into poverty. 

It’s interesting to note the places that God does not choose to be born. God does not choose to be born into a Pottery Barn catalogue, or a gated community, or the photo-shopped spread of Vogue, or any other carefully crafted fa├žade. God does not choose to be born to the perfect picture of motherhood, either. Young Mary was hardly a put together woman with a designer diaper bag chocked-full of juice boxes, Goldfish crackers, and activities to stave off tantrums. Life, faith, and parenthood are a messy business, but God always dives down into that out-of-control mess and makes something beautiful out of it. God’s an artist that way. 

In the moment when Sophia became the hand-holder, Grace took the wheel in the form of my mother’s steadfast gift of hospitality and wisdom. Cancer had not made her any less my mom. Even in her vulnerability she knew Sophia needed to be included, needed an important job. Grace took the wheel in the form of Sophia’s hardheaded determination to bust through that closed door and be part of this messy communion. Grace took the wheel in the form of three generations of women tackling the messiness of life together, and learning from one another of what we are capable. Another chunk of God-with-us fell into place. It was just another mediocre miracle. 
It was thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away, but it is a visit that for all our madness and cynicism and indifference and despair we have never quite forgotten. The oxen in their stalls. The smell of hay. The shepherds standing around. That child and that place are somehow the closest of all close encounters, the one we are closest to, the one that brings us closest to something that cannot be told in any other way. This story that faith tells in the fairytale language of faith is not just that God is, which God knows is a lot to swallow in itself much of the time, but that God comes. Comes here. “In great humility.” There is nothing much humbler than being born: naked, totally helpless, not much bigger than a loaf of bread . . . The world has never been quite the same since. It is still a very dark world, in some ways darker than ever before, but the darkness is different because he keeps getting born into it. The threat of holocaust. The threat of poisoning the earth and sea and air. The threat of our own deaths. The broken marriage. The child in pain. The lost chance. Anyone who has ever known him has known him perhaps better in the dark than anywhere else because it is in the dark where he seems to visit most often. Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry
This blog was originally published by Rachel Held Evans.
 Neely is a writer and blogger living in South Carolina with her husband, daughter, two dogs, one cat, and a turtle. She has a degree in Christian Education and Philosophy from Presbyterian College, and served the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a Youth Minister for a number of years. She is currently working on her first novel. Her blog is Glimpsing God; The Story of my Offbeat Faith. Enjoy! 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Prayer for the Bare Trees

by Angier Brock

My favorite walk these days takes me across an open swath of land to a road that meanders through a lovely, mostly deciduous woods to a pond. Each day the walk is different—as seasons change, light raises and lowers, birds migrate, frogs come and go, leaves appear and disappear.   

At the moment, the leaves have mostly disappeared. I love the trees in the spring when they put out their pink and white buds, in the summer when their green foliage offers much-needed shade and shelter for nesting birds, and in the fall when the leaves turn spectacularly auburn and yellow. But I especially love the trees as they are now: bare.

The trees are not dead, of course. But they are dormant. The life that is in them is stiller than in other seasons, harder to see with our eyes. At the same time, the patterns of the trees’ trunks, branches, and crowns are more readily visible. The very absence of leaves allows me to see more deeply into the woods and to observe more closely the topography of land. It is as though the trees have let go of what was important last season. The low winter sun plays off of their winter colors—grays, browns, and blacks—in subtle but beautiful ways.    

The bareness of the trees makes me wonder:  What might I shed this season? What might I see more clearly if I released something that, important as it might have been in another season, is not what I need now. How would winter light play off me if I lived more quietly, more simply?

O, Most Amazing God, Changer of Seasons, I give you thanks for the beauty of winter trees. May I learn to stand before You the way they do in winter, unadorned and unassuming. And may I learn to wait in your presence as they seem to wait:  patient, serene, and full of quiet hope. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thomas Merton’s Guide to the Holidays

by Doug Wysockey-Johnson

“The Holidays” can often feel like a roller coaster ride. This last week of November feels like we are almost at the top of the track.  Soon we will crest the hill, and our roller coaster car will careen down, quickly accelerating and jerking us this way and that around sharp corners and sudden stops.  Sometime around January 2, the ride will end.  We will pull into the station breathless, hair flying, and maybe just a little queasy.

I don’t know if the catholic writer Thomas Merton ever rode a roller coaster.  But in this calm before the storm, I have found his writing about “True Self” and “False Self” helpful.   According to Merton, the false self is the person that we present to the world, the one that we think will be pleasing to others:  attractive, confident, successful.  The true self, on the other hand, is the person that we are before God. Merton once wrote, “If I find Him I will find myself, and if I find my true self I will find Him.” Our true self is that deep place in us that represents the combination of our unique human identity, and the image of God in us.

Our task this Advent season is to live this true self out in the midst of  the roller coaster ride of our daily commitments. James Martin SJ writes:
Perhaps more to the point, the call to holiness comes whether we work in a corporate office in midtown Manhattan or as a housewife in a small house in Iowa.  Whether we are caring for a sick child late at night or preparing a church dinner for hundreds of homeless men and women.  Whether we are listening to a friend tell her problems over a cup of coffee or slogging late hours at work in order to help put our children through school.  Whether we are patiently spending long hours listening to people in the confessional in a small church, or spending long hours memorizing our lines for a small part in a big Broadway show.  Whether we are rich or poor, young or old, man or woman, straight or gay:  all of us are called to our own brand of personal holiness.
~Becoming Who You Are:  Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints
What is your situation this year as we head toward Advent?  Are you busy or bored?  Facing your first Christmas alone, or trying to figure out whom of all your friends and family you can see?  Are you alive spiritually, or dry and empty?  Are you tired of giving, or hungry for a place to serve?

Roller coasters tend to be great equalizers.  It’s hard to look “attractive, confident and successful” while you are hanging on for dear life.  So, as long as you are strapping someone in for the roller coaster ride we call “The Holidays,” why not make it your true self? 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Thanksgiving Reflection On Account of Josh

by Tom Pappas

One of the ways Laurel and exercise our faith and commitment to God’s creation is to organize our church’s Green Team (I sometimes call them “earth angels”).  We are the ones who nag, and complain about the unnecessary dependence on one-use items, especially foam cups.  For a significant number of years we have collected enough volunteers to wash ceramic cups and glasses each Sunday.

Josh joined the church with his guardians last October. He is a special young man whose baptism brought tears to my eyes as he carefully placed his glasses on the edge of the font and carefully lowered his over 6’ frame directly over the basin.  We sprinkle at Westminster, but it’s a good dose! Even though Josh was coached on what would happen, there was a bit of surprise; I found it a sweet moment.

Some of us conspired to invite Josh to help with dishwashing last Sunday. I approached him and he thought it was important to not waste resources, and he’d like to give it a try and he could do it today if it was OK with K___ and J___. It was, and he did.

Our machine doesn’t take coffee or tea stains away and is hopeless against lipstick, so every cup must we scrubbed and inspected. Josh nailed it.

He was visibly happy and so was I.  I will not try to count the times he commented, “I think I can do this every week.” (Coming in second, “I’m doing great, aren’t I?”)

God is good. Life has its ups and downs. There are many things for me to be thankful for in 2012. Spending less than an hour with Josh is one of them and puts a lot in perspective. It remains to be seen if this is the beginning of a call story. Stay tuned to see whose call it might be. Josh?  Me? Other volunteers?

The Josh experience freshens my attitude. May you have an experience that will be the seed of the gift of a fresh and inspired Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

When the Soul Short-Circuits

by Lauren Van Ham

I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle.”                                                          
~ Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition

Last Wednesday morning, I was traveling from Berkeley to San Francisco, on BART (the train system).  Last Wednesday was October 31st.  On any other October 31st, the morning BART commute might be more colorful than usual, it’s true; AND this wasn't just any other October 31st.  It was also the day San Francisco was welcoming home their Giants, the 2012 World Series champions.  The train cars were PACKED, each one teeming with humans dressed in orange and black which - conveniently enough – satisfied themes for baseball and Halloween.  Above ground, the streets near City Hall were buzzing.  Even those clearly dressed for business-as-usual appeared tickled, caught in the contagion of winning, solidarity, city pride. 

But that wasn't all that was happening last Wednesday. 

As the Bay Area was celebrating, the East Coast was trying to make heads-and-tails of itself in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy.  It was also the day before All Saint’s Day, which is the day before All Soul’s Day, less than a week before the US election, and…and…and…what else was happening right now that I (mercifully) wasn't even aware of?!!?

In moments like these, my soul short-circuits. 

In my effort to be present, with my intention to fully appreciate life’s joys and sorrows, my chest tightens.  My mind becomes that hourglass on my computer desktop -- you know the one!

I've come to feel grateful for these moments.  Like my computer, I “freeze” for a moment and notice all that’s happening.  I breathe, I pray, I ask for help and send blessings wherever I can.  I love the way Wendell Berry says it above, “And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving.” 

What happens for you when your soul short-circuits?  What in this (miraculous) life, do you have?  What are you willing (or wishing) to save?

About Lauren: Lauren lives in Berkeley, CA.  She serves as the Dean of Interfaith Studies at The Chaplaincy Institute and tends a private Spiritual Direction practice.  You can read Lauren’s blog at: http://www.laurenvanham.com/

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Another Prayer Involving a Tennis Ball

by Angier Brock

The other day as I sat cross-legged on the floor in my study, eyes closed, hands open and relaxed, a tennis ball dropped into one of my palms. Enough of stillness! My dog Joey was ready to play. I smiled—but I kept my eyes closed and let the ball simply rest there in my hand as I went back to silently repeating the “sacred word” I use in centering prayer. Holy God¸ breathing in. Holy God, breathing out.

Joey was undeterred. He picked up the ball—and then dropped it back into my palm. Again I kept my eyes closed and remained still. Holy God, breathing in. Holy God, breathing out.

And then Joey did something he almost never does in the house. He barked. Which is how he got me to get up and go outdoors and play fetch with him that day.

Time spent in contemplation is good. Any quieting time that allows the still small voice of calm, the whisper of God, to be heard through the noise of daily living is good. But the point of it that quiet time is not to stay there indefinitely. Rather, we let the quiet prepare us to be called more fully into the world—to vote, for example, or to be a poll watcher; to give blood, or to serve a meal at a shelter; to do our day job or our weekend volunteer work; to sit with a suffering friend or to help strangers pick up the pieces of lives torn apart by a hurricane-turned-superstorm. Moments of quiet can make us ready to receive whatever gets dropped into our palms. On days when we are lucky, what gets dropped is a tennis ball and we can go outdoors to play, rejoicing in the goodness of creation. But even on days when the call is to a difficult task, we can keep on breathing with the words we repeat during moments of quiet. Holy God, breathing in. Holy God, breathing out. We can open ourselves to what calls us, one centered breath at a time.

What’s being dropped into your palm this week? What sacred words have meaning for you? Some words I have heard from others include “Love,” “Trust,” “Peace,” “Amen,” “Maranatha,” and “Abide.”  As you respond to whatever is calling you, may you find sacred words to carry with you—words that keep you strong, clear, and centered in the love of God as you breathe them in and out. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Giving Thanks For All Our Saints

by Doug Wysockey-Johnson

Who modeled for you what it means to be the person you want to be? 

Today is All Saints Day, a religious holiday in Western Christianity that comes the day after Halloween.  The word “saint” means different things to different people, ranging from exemplary and officially canonized catholics who have died, to a football team in New Orleans.

Frederick Buechner wrote, “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief.  These handkerchiefs are called saints.”  (Wishful Thinking:  A Theological ABC)  One definition given in the dictionary for a saint is “a person who is admired or venerated because of their virtue.” 

Which leads me back to the question:  Who have been the saints in your life?  Who has been this kind of “holy handkerchief?” Even though they may have died, is there a person you still draw strength and wisdom from because of the way they lived their life?

Today is a good day to give thanks for those people.  

(And, bonus...not sure if you've got this in your head right now, but here's the hymn: For All the Saints)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

For Troy: One's Fight Against Bullying

by Tom Pappas

Because of a thrilling experience I had last Friday I want to report it and also try an experiment.  But to start, I must go back 15 years.  At Lincoln High where as a teacher, I got to be around Troy, a remarkable young man who I will tell more about shortly.

Now I will go back one month to a seminar for adults at my church where we put together a series on Bullying which literally included a nationally known expert. During one of the sessions the topic included bystander behavior. The most common bystander behavior is to watch without intervening.

While this discussion was taking place, most of the examples conjured memories of Troy.  He was a good kid; but he was more.  He was an athlete. He was popular with all groups. He related well with adults. He was NOT a common bystander. I have distinct recollections of him stepping between adversaries and cooling everyone’s jets. Over the years, I have thought about him often and when the leader said, “Most young people don’t have the confidence to step into a bullying situation.” I thought, Troy does.  Leader: Most young people don’t have the expertise to diffuse the tension of bullying in progress. Me: Troy does. Leader: Most young people are concerned about the future consequences of intervention. Me: Troy’s sense of justice and fairness trumped all that.

During these sessions I couldn’t get Troy off my mind; not that I wanted to, I have such respect for him it was fun to reminisce.

Then, last Thursday, as my wife, Laurel, was preparing to lead a meditation with the Lumunos Board she asked for help with an idea for a sharing question - like what we do at Lumunos events. The topic was “standing by the door”. I told her that I had long been touched by the question Larson and Miller asked in the Taste of New Wine small group guide. After decades I paraphrase: “Name a person who was important in your faith experience. What did they do for you and if it was so powerful, can you do that for someone else?”

The Lumunos Board is a wonderful and atypical entity. I went along to Chicago to hang out in the big city and was welcome to attend different parts of the meeting. I went to Laurel’s relational time. She asked us a variation of the Larson/Miller question and we counted off to get into random groups. There were just two in my group and after I spoke, Dave began what would be a like a very complimentary introduction of a guest of honor. I felt tears well up when he disclosed that he was talking about me as the person who stood by the door for him in his Lumunos experience. Wow! I am still reeling – in a good way.

Admiration becomes affirmation when it is lovingly presented to the other person. Since Lincoln High days I have admired Troy Hassebroek and followed his career as a college player, often named as the best downfield blocker on the team. Never a bystander he was active in student life and was honored as homecoming king. Unusual for a big university, I think.

The experiment? I would love for Troy to have the empowerment of affirmation that I felt from Dave last weekend. Through the grapevine qualities of the world wide web, I wonder if my high regard for him will reach him? God willing.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Doing Something Different

by Lauren Van Ham
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.  - James 1:22-25 (NIV)
A few weeks ago, I fell into a conversation with a handful of women I barely know.  We were reflecting on a local news headline that had us feeling distressed. Sighing softly – and I thought inaudibly - I uttered, “We need to do something different.”  The woman across from me, clutched her chest, “Oh my gosh; that’s IT!  We need to do something different.” 

Where, in your life, do you long for things to look and feel different?  Is it your relationship with your work, your family or prayer life?  Maybe it’s where you’re giving your time, or spending your creativity?  Or it’s the election and major decisions in your local communities?  Where, in your life, are you hungry for greater connectivity, deeper understanding, a sense of purpose and impact? 

Like you, these questions put me on-edge; they’re important and when I’m feeling stuck or dissatisfied, I know it’s because God is inviting me to I do something different.

Our present time in the church calendar often called, Ordinary Time, coincides with New Year’s celebrations on other calendars the world around: Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew), Neyrouz (Coptic), Samhain (Wiccan), and Diwali (Hindu).  It’s not such a stretch to feel New Year’s energy now marked by Autumn’s surge of “Back-to-School” excitement and the harvest bountifully pouring forth at farm stands everywhere.  This final fit of energy – before the solstice dark sets in – might be just the nudge we need to be courageous, to dig deeper and to do something different. 

I won’t lie.  This “doing-something-different” stuff can be DICEY.  It means responding repeatedly to uncertainty and meeting it as authentically as our vulnerable-brave-fragile-resilient-wise-and-humble-selves can muster.  But in this letter from James, we’re encouraged to look for God, to seek what truly frees us, so as to live in blessing.  And I believe this is God’s invitation to us - to prayerfully tend the new possibility as it arises.  Where have you found the Holy revealed in the unpredictable patterns of life and death, joy and sorrow, coming and going, growing and grieving? 

As the seasons change, as Ordinary Time transitions into anticipation and Advent, may you embrace God’s invitation to show up in your life and discover something refreshingly, soothingly, soul-shiftingly different.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Harvest Your Power: October 2012 e-News

It's harvest time here in New England and in many parts of the country.   Because I'm neither a farmer nor a gardener, corn, squash and pumpkins are not on my mind. Rather I am thinking of another kind of harvest.  What might it mean to gather in the life experiences that grow in us?

Recently I revisited a wonderful short book of poetry by Matthew Perry.  The book is titled Aim Toward Love:  A year of Loss, Learning and Connection.  The poems are about Perry'sdivorce and the learning, pain and hope that emerge from it.  In his verse, I hear him harvesting his life experiences.  Just one example:

With her sitting two seats away,
perpendicular to me,
in the courthouse waiting room, 
staring into the distance,
gazing past the chance for small talk,
cauterizing the recent past and the present moment,
I realized that I hadn't lost the last ten years-
I still have those and always will-
I had lost the next forty, 
or fifty, 
the rest of my life
that was supposed to go this way,
but went that,
and then I realized that I hadn't lost the time itself -
I had lost the idea,
the expectation,
the placidity of the daily flow
when the banks are so defined and certain,
and the ocean so far off and unknowable but welcoming -
and I had gained instead a muddy roiling flood
pushing outward past banks, not forward toward the sea,
making mud out of time and a mockery of expectations,
and then, just before they called our names,
and we left our seats to walk awkwardly
with others between us like islands, I realized that
this flood will leave the coming years
not ruined and fallow,
but rich and fertile.
   Flood, by Matthew Perry

We harvest many experiences, even the painful ones.  Occasionally we revisit them, not because we are masochists.  We return because the soil of those experiences is rich and fertile.

Jesus told his friends to gather and remember him, re-telling the painful story of his betrayal and death.  Not because he wanted us to feel sad and stuck.  Rather, harvesting that experience is a reminder of resurrection, the power of Love over death.  It is a lesson the land teaches us every year.
In God's Peace, 
  Doug sigHa

Prayer for the Animals

by Angier Brock

 Last Sunday, my dog Joey went with me as a guest to historic Bruton Parish Church for the annual Blessing of the Animals. All things bright and beautiful, all creatures, great and small…. Perhaps you too took a dog—or a cat, a gerbil, a canary, or even a horse—with you to your own church that day. For us in Williamsburg, rain forced the service indoors, so no horses or goats attended. Still, there were plenty of animals peeping out of the pews once used by the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other persons (both great and small) of their day: dogs of all sizes, a hamster, and at least one Siamese cat, plus a variety of stuffed animals. Joey loved it! We all did. How easy it is to love the creatures we tame and invite to be a part of our family.

Later that afternoon, I went by myself to my home church in Yorktown, donned one of the bee suits kept in the shed, and fed the bees—that is, replenished the sugar water in the two hives that are getting established there. With the flowers dying as days continue to shorten, opportunities for gathering nectar are diminished, so the church beekeepers are supplementing our bees’ food to ensure they have enough to get them through until spring. All things wise and wonderful…. How easy to appreciate, and to want to help sustain, the amazing animals whose work—in this case as pollinators—benefits our well-being.
Then there are the creatures that are difficult to appreciate, let alone love. Mosquitoes spring to mind. During the Revolutionary War battle that took place in the little village where I live, mosquitoes claimed more lives than did the armed fighting. In many parts of the world, mosquitoes remain a major source of human illness, misery, and death.

Are there prayers we might say on behalf of mosquitoes, for surely they too are part of God’s creation? Or do we bless only the “bright and beautiful” and “wise and wonderful” animals we understand, love, and benefit from?

I have no answer. Certainly I resist blessing anything that causes such enormous human suffering. In the end, I can only leave mosquitoes to God—and perhaps give what I can to a relief agency that tackles malaria in developing countries or provides mosquito nets to those living without window screens. I can do what I can to help heal and protect our earth—even as I acknowledge that, like the mosquito, I sometimes bite, sting, do harm to others. I can bow down in humility before the awesomeness of the universe even as I pray for harmony among God’s creatures. And I can continue with a grateful heart to thank God for all the gifts of creation that are indeed bright, beautiful, wise, and wonderful. Amen. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

So what’s religion and health care got to do with car racing?

by Betsy Perry

Last Sunday was a first for me.  I actually sat through the entire 300 laps of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s NASCAR race much to my surprise.  Fortified with ear plugs and binoculars and exceptionally good seats (thanks to my second cousin), I became a focused observer of car racing and humankind.   While I was impressed by the speed of the cars and the control that skillful drivers demonstrated (there were no crashes in this race, only a few bumps), most of my observations were about people.

There were over 100,000 fans in the seats, on the hillside opposite where we sat, and up in two helicopters constantly flying over the track.  The last time I had been sitting anywhere with over 100,000 people was in University of Michigan’s stadium, the “Big House” in Ann Arbor, where we used to live.  I never thought the rural state of New Hampshire would ever hold any kind of a gathering attracting that many people.  And most everyone seemed to be having fun even the kids.  Some people were mighty serious about their favorite drivers, #14 “Smoke” aka Tony Stewart or #48 Jimmy Johnson, with a fan sitting behind us who stood the entire race with eyes glued to Jimmy’s car and commenting on every strategic move.

Another serious fan, a woman sitting in front of me, was writing in a small notebook, and I thought how nice, she is journaling her experience, until I realized she was writing down a vast number of numbers, probably statistics of some sort.  Then she closed her little notebook and it was entitled, “My Official NASCAR Notebook.” 

As I’m glancing at all the pit stops in front of us, I see Aflac, Energizer, Office Depot, Target, and then. . . wait a minute, it couldn’t be but it is, Presbyterian Healthcare?  So what’s religion got to do with car racing (besides the opening prayer at each NASCAR race)?  None of the expert racing fans surrounding me (my husband and my cousin’s husband) had heard of them.  We couldn’t even find out the name of the driver.  I’ll “Google” it later, I decided.

Here’s the Google scoop. . . a hospital opened in 1903 in Charlotte, NC, with help from the Presbyterian Church, and it has morphed into a large healthcare system over the years to partner with car racing mogul Michael McDowell, to reach “a wide audience [to promote] the importance of regular health screenings to save lives.  I find this partnership deserving of great merit from the health care standpoint.  I have a Master’s in Public Health and believe in prevention through health screenings.   From a religious standpoint, I don’t think there is any connection with the Presbyterians of today that I could find. 

But here’s the question:  How much of McDowell’s $1.8 million in winnings in 22 starts brings people to the screening programs and ultimately saves lives?  His pit stop was pretty plain compared to the others like Aflac, so I don’t think they spend too much money there, and the big semi that carried his car was likewise.  So maybe a few bucks go for a really good cause.  I wondered:  What if other drivers whose winnings total upwards of $6 million each did the same and maybe they do?  Then I found that the pole winner, Jeff Gordon, who finished third in NH and has earned over $4.7 million, drives to end hunger.  I’ll research more for the next car race I go to.  I think I’ll have plenty of time!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What Are Your Prayers Like?

by Tom Pappas

Maybe you saw this on 60 Minutes last Sunday.  Scott Pelley was interviewing Mitt Romney and he asked if the candidate prayed every night. The answer was, “Yes.”

Pelley then followed up with, “What do you ask for?”  Yikes. Yes, he asked that. Whoever said there are no dumb questions?  (To finish the thought, Romney said, “That’s between me and God.” But then said, “Wisdom.”

I hope other believers agree with me that a view of prayer that assumes a nightly discipline (nothing against it) where the praying person’s only task is to itemize petition items is quite childish.  Enough said about the interview except to say that it caused me to reflect on my own prayer experience.

What I hear myself saying when I pray is “Thank You, God.”  The most regular prayers are at mealtimes and Laurel and I are diligent in “returning thanks” for the plenty in our lives.  We see ourselves and truly blessed.  When we bow and pray in restaurants I usually wonder, and sort of hope, that someone is noticing that that interesting older couple is holding hands and thanking God for their food.

A majority of my prayers are organic, in the moment.  Sometimes they are the wordless ones that the Holy Spirit alone can interpret to God.

I regularly ask God to bless our church. I dream of WPC being the best expression of itself as God’s instrument in the world. I regularly ask God to bless Lumunos in the same way.  I regularly ask God to bless our family. We have awesome adult children, each with their wonderful talents and sometimes almost daunting challenges. I am totally not asking God to smooth the way, but to guide them to summon their gifts and savor it all – glorious and hard.

What are your prayers like?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Prayer for Saying "I'm Sorry"

by Angier Brock

I've been thinking this week about the words “I’m sorry.” 

Suppose I say that I am sorry for interrupting someone mid-sentence, for forgetting to do something I had promised, or for hurting someone’s feelings with my thoughtless comment. Or suppose I say to someone, “I’m sorry I backed your car into that mailbox and tore up the bumper.” In those cases, “I’m sorry” is a confession, an admission of my own guilt, and an acknowledgment of my responsibility for what I have done or left undone. Perhaps I did not mean to. For example, my intention when I borrowed my friend’s car wasn't to damage it. But when I backed it into a mailbox, denting the bumper and breaking a tail light, I said, “I am sorry.” I apologized for what I had done. AND I paid to get the bumper and the tail light fixed. (For the record, I confessed to the post office about the mailbox, too.)

On the other hand, if I say that I am sorry that you lost your job, broke your ankle, got robbed at gunpoint, found yourself diagnosed with cancer, or felt publicly humiliated by something someone else said or did, I am not taking responsibility for being the cause of any of those things. I am not making an apology or asking pardon. I am simply acknowledging that I can identify with the feelings the situation has evoked in you, whether those feelings be fear, pain, grief, confusion, anger, shame, or one of the other emotions we usually label “negative” and often go to great lengths to avoid. It’s a way to reach out. To extend the hand of compassion.

The two kinds of “I’m sorry” are different. The first we might call a causal one. That “I’m sorry” takes responsibility for the pain, discomfort, inconvenience, or destruction my words or actions cause. The second is a relational one. That “I’m sorry” acknowledges a kinship. It says that as a human being myself, I understand what a fellow human being must be feeling.

Perhaps you, like I, have had the experience of saying the second kind of “I’m sorry” to someone, only to have that person reply, “Well, it’s not your fault.” That response has always seemed curious—to be absolved of blame that neither I nor the other person thinks is mine in the first place. But it is a response I have heard often enough to wonder: Do we sometimes completely misunderstand what someone is trying to convey when he or she says “I’m sorry”? Do some of us attach one meaning whereas others attach a different one?

If you’ve been watching the news in the last week, you know why this has been on my mind.

So here is my prayer: that we each give thought to how we use—and hear—even the simplest words.  “I’m sorry” would be a good place to start, for though the words may sometimes sound trite to our ears or feel impotent on our tongues, they are important words, and we should be honest about what they mean in the various situations to which they are suited.

One more thing about the words “I’m sorry.” The tagline from the 1970 movie that said “love means never having to say you are sorry” is dead wrong. No matter whether we are using the words to accept responsibility for our actions or to reach out in compassion, love requires that we speak them. In fact, in both cases, love is probably what makes it possible to say them at all.

[You may also connect with The Sorry Project on Facebook.]

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

You are...You shall be...

by Doug Wysockey-Johnson

We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it.  The process is not finished but it is going on.
                                    Martin Luther
Ok all you Star Wars fans, here is a question for you: What made Luke Skywalker the person he was?  How about Anakin? What shaped their identity? 

According to a recent exhibit at the Montreal Science Centre, Luke’s identity (and ours) is formed by a complicated mixture of genes, parents, mentors, significant life experiences, choices and values.   It was a brilliant exhibit that managed to teach the science of identity in a way that captivated a 52-year-old man (that would be me) and his 8-year-old son.

The biblical narrative isn’t quite as popular a story these days as Star Wars.  But there are many insightful stories about identity, including that of Peter.  Peter and Jesus were close friends.  In their earliest meeting, Jesus makes a bold statement to Peter:  “You are Simon, the son of John--but you will be Cephas (which means Peter”).

Throughout the rest of their recorded friendship Jesus usually calls his friend Simon Peter.  Jesus used both names—who Peter was, and who Simon was becoming. Through this friendship with Jesus, Peter’s identity both stayed the same, and was changed.  Like Luke Skywalker and us, Peter’s identity was formed through his parents (“You are Simon, Son of John”), his experiences, his genes, mentors and life shaping experiences.

I continue to find myself in the midst of this “you are—you shall be” equation.  Sometimes I am stunned at my ability to get caught in the same traps, make the same mistakes and stumble over the same rocks. Still Doug for sure.  Then once in awhile, by the grace of God, I look and see that I am becoming a new person.

Richard Rohr calls this process “falling upward.”  He writes, “The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.”  Along the way we embark on a further journey, one that involves challenges, mistakes, and loss of control amongst other things. (Falling Upward:  Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life) This ‘falling upward’ is not always fun—ask Luke Skywalker or the Apostle Peter.  But it does lead to greater clarity about what provides meaning in our lives.  And it allows us to give ourselves to others more authentically.

May the Force be with you as you where ever you are on the “You are—You shall be” continuum. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Let's Just Listen to Each Other

by Tom Pappas

I have two competing characteristics that create quite a dissonance.  I really love to be right. It’s one of my favorite things.  I also think of myself as having an open mind, even about the topics where I have a strong opinion – which is (see characteristic one) the right one.

A story in today’s newspaper indicated that as we listen to those around us with like opinions, we become more firmly set in those opinions.  As the news cycle transitions from the Republican convention to the Democratic convention this principle is perfectly illustrated by the thousands of delegates in their respective arenas. (Talk about a giant information bubble!)  Both groups are hearing what they like to hear and will go home more dedicated to their political views.

In another century when I was in college, my information bubble included talk about God making the world ready for the end times as the Scripture indicates. (Wasn’t imminent; didn’t happen.) Thinking back to those college days, I am embarrassed that I allowed my view of God’s world and my purpose to be distorted by not getting more information. When you hear only (or mostly) one topic it becomes the focus of your imagination and energy.

What to do?

Recently at the Adult Education committee meeting we looked at the calendar and said a collective “Oops!” when we realized that there was but one offering for October. (We like to have two or more.)  I chimed in and said, “What I really want to do is sit in a room with other Christians and talk about the election. Not argue, but talk, and listen.”  we’re going to try it. I hope lots of people with strong opinions come to do those things.

Doesn’t that seem like the way it should be? No need to scurry back to the protection of an information bubble to feel safe.  Let’s just talk. Let’s just listen.  My new goal is to look at those I disagree with as loved by God, someone to listen to, and possibly right.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Prayer When Getting Tennis Balls Out of Trees

by Angier Brock

As regards both distance and accuracy, I haven’t much of a pitching arm, and so the discovery of a tennis-ball-on-a-rope dog toy has facilitated my playing fetch with my dog Joey. I hold the end of the rope, swing it pendulum-like beside me, and let it fly. Some physical law of thermo- or aerodynamics probably explains the magic. With the help of the rope, the distance I can throw the ball is greatly increased—as is the distance Joey runs and the amount of puppyish energy he expends. Life is good.

There remains the matter of accuracy. Another law decrees that you have to get the right trajectory—that is, swing the ball in the correct plane and release it at the precise moment—or the ball-on-a-rope will disappear into the foliage of the nearest crepe myrtle. When that happens, your dog will still think you’re magic. After all, you made the ball vanish. But if you want to keep him using up his energy, you must be the retriever; you must make it reappear. Life goes off course. It leads to unexpected reversals. 

How many of my thrown balls-on-a-rope have gone amok, and how many cumulative hours have I have spent circling the crepe myrtle trying to spot where in the foliage the ball has gotten lodged? Though no one’s keeping statistics, the answer to both is “Lots!” Life is humbling. 

Once I locate the ball in the crepe myrtle, getting it down is sometimes easy. I shake a limb and it falls. Or I throw a shoe and, if I’m lucky (and if the shoe doesn’t get stuck in the branches too), the ball drops. But sometimes the ball has gotten caught in the higher branches with the rope—the very thing that makes it easier for me to throw the ball—entangled. Then I have to go to the shed to get a telescoping pole with a U-hook taped to the end. Sometimes I also need a stepladder. Life is complicated.   

I am writing about this in yet another week filled with grave news: Hurricane Isaac and the Gulf Coast; national political rhetoric that does nothing to solve our economic, social, and environmental problems; the Middle East. Plus I have friends in dire personal circumstances. You probably do too. Stroke. Cancer. Bankruptcy. Daunting, isn’t it?

In spite of what my dog may think, I have no magic, and unlike the television evangelist who once claimed to have prayed away a hurricane headed for the coast of Virginia, my powers are not such that I can send storms or other hardships scuttling. Nevertheless, I do what you probably do. Pray. Deliver food or flowers. Make calls to members of Congress. Give to relief organizations and medical research facilities. And all the while wishing I could do more, prevent more, understand more, fix more. 

That’s where the tennis-ball-on-a-rope comes in. That’s when Joey and I go back outdoors to play. Sometimes the ball goes where I want, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes he fetches it, and sometimes I do. Our activity has no major consequence for anyone or anything. It is nevertheless an act of living. Perhaps, in its own way, it is an also act of faithfulness—even a kind of prayer—for it reminds me that while life is painful, and daunting, and complicated, and humbling, and unpredictable, it is also good. Very good. And I am grateful for that.