Sheer Silence: Part Three

This is the third installment, where we explore a key question:  In the midst of the busyness and noise of daily life, where can we turn for perspective and refreshment?

This question has been particularly relevant in the midst of the political dysfunction and rancor that takes place in Washington D.C on a daily basis.  This past week I couldn’t take any more.  I realized that I was internalizing the debate going on (particularly around the hearings for Judge Bret Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the heartbreaking testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford).

I realized I needed to turn  off the television news programs and head for the water.  For me the water is a place of refuge.  A place to slow down, reflect and get some perspective.

So I loaded up my kayak and put in on the Ipswich River.  It was early October, cool, cloudy.  I began to paddle.  The Ipswich is a meandering river which doesn’t allow you to hurry.  For seven miles I paddled….just me and my neighbors… egrets, herons, turtles, beaver and ducks.

 

With each dip of my paddle, I felt the tension in my shoulders begin to lessen and my breathing become easier, deeper.   I remembered the wisdom of John Muir, the Grandfather of the American conservation movement, and champion for the creation of national parks.

Muir said:

How true.  I paddled the Ipswich to lose my mind.  To let go of my worries, my anger, my sadness… for a while.  To remember to breathe deeply.  To look up and around and say ‘wow’ and ‘thank you’.   To ‘find my soul’.  To allow my soul to heal.

It has been said that working for the common good and confronting injustice and callousness is a marathon, not a sprint.  It requires an ability to persist, to endure, for the challenges never leave us.

Spending time being quiet (on a river, in your back yard, in a park) is essential for gaining perspective…for remembering to breathe and relax, if only for a while.  To open up to the wisdom of that great mystery we call ‘Spirit’.

I’m not an advocate for  permanently withdrawing from the chaos and complexity of our time.  We need good people of conscience to be informed, to speak out.  Now, as much as ever. Yet, I also know, that being quiet, resting, renewing is essential too.

I hope you find places to rest, to reflect, to be renewed.  As we know, life is a marathon and not a sprint.  Paddle well.

 

Remembering Tall Tony

Tony, our neighbor, died a few weeks ago.  A longtime resident, he was known to many in our city of Beverly, Massachusetts.  He was a tall, good-looking guy with an easy laugh.  He had the gift for storytelling and telling a joke.  He loved to see people laugh.  Friends called him ‘Tall Tony’.

Tony also struggled.  His alcoholism, led to a life of living on the streets.  His disease took a toll and contributed to his death at age 59.

Unfortunately Tony’s struggle is all to familiar.  Many of us have family or friends who wrestle with an addiction… loved ones who seek escape from  underlying pain,  with drugs or drink.  Such stories are all to common

What is uncommon, is how the city I live in, responded to Tony’s life and death.  In  many cities  we walk past those who live on the streets.  They are seemingly invisible.

But not here.

In Beverly, you’ll find the ‘White Whale’, a little house that provides daily meeting space for AA and NA groups.  To honor Tony, they created a Facebook page to honor and mourn his death.  ‘Friends of Ellis Square’, a collection of neighbors who provide weekly meals and friendship to neighbors in need, organized to provide a respectful send off for their friend.

Local churches of various faiths,  provided  food, meeting space and finances to help cover the cost of the funeral.  Campbell’s a local funeral home donated their space and staff.

Pastor Valerie offers words of blessing at Tony’s committal service.

My contribution was to drive Tony’s friends in our church van to the funeral.  Following the eulogy, prayers and singing at the Funeral Home, our van took its place in a procession to the cemetery.

As we drove Billy commented: “Tony would have loved this attention. He’s getting his own parade.”  Sue remarked: “It’s nice to see Tony treated with respect.”

A homeless man dying in America is sadly an all to familiar story.  What is remarkable, is how our community offered a different response.  Tony was remembered, even honored in death, because he was known and valued in life.

I think that’s the key to our well-being as a community.  We see each other.  We know each others name.  It is hard to be indifferent or unkind as we get to know each other.  When we allow ourselves to become friends.

Nobel Peace laureate, Desmond Tutu said: ‘The moral health of a community is measured in direct proportion, to the compassion we show towards those among us who are most vulnerable.”  By such a measure, our town is making progress.

Thanks Tony, for refusing to hide in the shadows. Thanks to the neighbors, recovery community, churches who got to know Tony by name and honored him in his passing.

Rest in peace Tony.   You are missed.

 

 

Sheer Silence: Part Two

In the midst of the busyness and noise of daily life, where can we turn for perspective and refreshment?  Is there an antidote from our seemingly relentless pace?

The answer is simple and profound: Practice being quiet.  Each day carve out space for rest and renewal.

What I’m suggesting is counter-cultural.  Be assured that the dominate culture will do everything in its power, subtle and overt, to get you back on the treadmill of busyness and noise.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  You and I have the power to make changes.  Here are three steps to help you experience the gift of silence:

First, begin with a question:  ‘Where can you go and what can you do, to help you to be quiet, to reflect and relax?”  The answers are personal.

Second, put your idea (s) into practice.  Carve out at least 30 minutes.  Consider when in the day you have time.  If you are a busy parent or working a demanding job, this may take some creative planning.  Then put your idea into practice.  Try something multiple times to give it a chance.

Here are a few ideas (once you’ve turned off your phone):  Go for a run or walk, play in your garden, savor a hot drink in a restful setting, yoga, tai chi, walk your dog, cocoon with your cat, stroll in a park, choose a brief reading to quiet your mind…the list is endless.

Third, focus on your breath. Take a deep relaxed breath in and let your breath out.  Slow and easy.  Relaxed breathing will drop your blood pressure and increase the amount of oxygen in your blood stream.  Physiologically your muscles will relax and you’ll think more clearly.

Lectio Divina at Independence Park Beach

Consider sharing the silence with others. Most religious traditions understand the power of shared silence.  For ten years, once per week, I’ve started my day with a small group for Lectio Divina (meditating on Scripture).   During the summer we meet at a local beach.  The group holds me accountable to show up and shared meditation affirms the importance of being quiet.  https://bustedhalo.com/ministry-resources/lectio-divina-beginners-guide

Thomas Keating the Trappist monk and mystic says: “God’s first language is silence.  Everything else is a poor translation.”   Keating understands that silence is not an end unto itself but a doorway through which we may sense God’s loving presence.

To be clear I am not a natural contemplative.  I’m an extrovert.  I get a rush out of being busy.  But I also know that there are gifts to be found in being quiet.

Being quiet offers perspective and a foundation upon which to stand, from which to live.  When we are over stimulated we lose perspective, become unbalanced, anxious.

I invite you to try the following for one month: Carve out 30 minutes a day to be quiet.  Do that which helps you slow down.  Focus on the relaxed rhythm of your breath…  After each week make a mental note as to what you like and don’t like about being quiet, make adjustments to find what works best for you.  At the end of one month, if you’d like, send me an email at kharrop@fbcbeverly.org and let me know how you’re doing.

I wish you well in being quiet.  It’s an acquired ability.  Be patient.  Enjoy.

 

Sheer Silence: Part One

We live in a world of busyness and noise.   Smart phones train us to respond to prompts.   Email and texts blur the line between our work and personal life.  The 24 hour news cycle means we are continually processing data.  Oftentimes we feel stressed, overwhelmed, anxious.

In the midst of the busyness and noise where do we turn for perspective and refreshment?  Is there an antidote from this seemingly relentless pace?

The Bible tells the story of a man called Elijah.  Elijah was a Hebrew prophet who lived approx. 3000 years ago.  Elijah felt abandoned by his people and abandoned by God.  Elijah: “I alone am left and my enemies are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Into the story God speaks but not in the way Elijah expects:

God said: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, the sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.

Such is the great paradox of this story.  It is not in the noise and fury of wind, earthquake or fire that God speaks.  Rather, in ‘the sound of sheer silence’.   The paradox of being able to hear what is truly important in the midst of quiet.

Quiet…silence…creates emotional and spiritual space within which we can listen for and get in touch with what matters.  The countercultural call remains the same.  To make space for  quiet.  Space to simply be.

The truth is that many of us fear silence.  We fear the loss of control.  We prefer being busy.  Many of us are propelled by an old  joke:  ‘Don’t just stand there, do something!’

We do something, anything, to give us a sense of purpose.  Even if the ‘something’ isn’t the right thing or the healthiest thing to do.  Busyness and noise as an end unto itself.

Elijah knew that what truly matters comes not in the earthquake, wind or fire.  Truth and  value comes from silence.  Imagine.

In 2002 I participated in a ten-day silent kayak trip in the Tongass Wilderness, in Southeast Alaska.  We were introduced each day to meditation practices.  Meditation designed to help us quiet the busyness in our mind and simply be. Open to where we were and what was going on within me and around me.

Truth be told, for the first few days I struggled.  The silence was uncomfortable.  I had so many things to say.   Chaotic thoughts or feelings I wanted to flee from.  But by day three I felt myself shift…where the silence became a gift.  A gift that invited me to become more aware and open… to rest and be restored  ‘in the sheer silence’.

Over the next few blogs I’d like to explore with you ways of entering into the sheer silence.  I invite you on a counter-cultural journey of becoming quiet.  We may well be surprised by where the journey takes us.

Millie’s Apple Pie

My Mom, Millie Harrop died on August 6th.  She was 95 and ready to move on to whatever is next.  Like most of us, she lived her life with a mixture of joy and struggle.

She carried the memory of 55 years of marriage to Norman, my Dad.  In each other they found strength and love.  They complemented and understood the other.  They knew they were better together than apart.

When Norman died in 2000, his passing left an empty space that was never filled.  To the best of her ability, Millie lived her life following Norman’s passing.

One constant throughout was baking, particularly her apple pie.  Her crust was famous. She was selective in the choice of  apples, flour and pie tin used.  Not one to write a recipe down, her pie making was instinctive, the result of decades of practice.  The texture and taste of her crust and the crispness of the apple, with just a hint of sugar,  would make your ears wiggle.  The pie was that good.

Millie was generous with her pies.  To receive a pie was one way she let you know that you were appreciated, loved.   It gave her pleasure to see others enjoy a slice, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a piece of strong cheese.

Several weeks ago, knowing that Mom was drawing to the close of her life, my wife and I flew from our home in Massachusetts to see her in Florida (living near my brother).  We gathered to say good-bye and offer thanks for the kindness’ shown.

At her bedside any past wounds were let go of.  Grace was found.

I learned of  Mom’s passing a few weeks later, when my brother phoned me in Montana.  She had died that afternoon.  The next morning  I was leaving for a nine-day backpacking trip in the wilderness.

During those nine days on the trail I had a sense of peace.  Peace in knowing that our Mom had loved us to the best of her ability.  Peace in knowing we her family and friends, had loved her to the best of our ability.  What more can we ask of in life, than to love and be loved?

My backpacking buddies (Bruce, Jock, Russell) wrapped up our trip with a dinner at Jock’s log cabin home.  Deah, Bruce’s wife, had learned of my Mom’s practice of making pies for those she loved.   We concluded our dinner with apple pie,  a scoop of vanilla and a piece of strong cheese.   Deah said: “I thought this pie would remind you of your Momma.”   Yes.  Thank you.

It has been said ‘that a kindness offered is never forgotten’.  The memory of my Mom’s famous apple pie will stay with me.  The love that she baked into her pie will remain.

And, the kindness of a pie shared with friends in Montana, with the memory of my Mom close by, will stay with me too.   Grace abounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kids in cages: Our Joe McCarthy Moment?

McCarthyism in the 1950’s came to an end when an attorney named Joseph Nye Welch,  stood up to Senator Joe McCarthy and asked rhetorically: “Senator, have you no shame?”   McCarthy who saw a communist under every rock, had turned to accusing opponents often with little evidence.  People lost their livelihoods and sometimes their freedom.

It was this simple question, ‘have you no shame?’ which opened up a process of soul searching by citizens and elected officials.  With one pointed question, our nation was asked to consider the values that define who we are and more than that, who we strive to become.

Thankfully, enough people took the question to heart.  Our democracy turned from fear based behavior, to the values of decency and due process under the law.

We’ve come to such a time.  In recent months President Trump and his administration have enforced a ‘Zero-tolerance policy’ that serves to separate children from their parents who are crossing our borders without documentation. Chief of Staff, John Kelly put it this way: “Children would be separated from their parents if their families have been apprehended entering the country illegally, in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous border.”

It was reported today that nearly 2,000 children have been removed from their parents in just six weeks.  Yesterday in a Washington Post article, Laura Bush spoke out forcibly against this policy: “I live in a border state.  I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/laura-bush-separating

Could it be that President Trump has finally met his Joe McCarthy moment?

In classic Trump mode, our president is doubling down on his zero-tolerance policy.  My hope and prayer is that he has met his match in the American people.  Met his match in the collective remembering of our core values.

 

The Counter-cultural Act of Being Civil

The state of our union is fractured.  We’ve moved into camps.  Most political conservatives have rallied around the flag of Donald Trump.  Liberals and moderates are looking ahead to the mid-term elections, hoping for a check on the policies of our president.

Within my Christian community the camps are clearly defined.  Theological conservatives for the most part have embraced Mr. Trump.  Fully 82% of white evangelicals voted for him and still think he’s doing a good job.   Theological liberals and moderates like me are perplexed how our Christian sisters and brothers come to such different conclusions.

Our polarized society has led people to no longer talk with but rather talking at and about each other.  The result is that the narrative of ‘the other’ as an opponent, even an enemy, is reinforced.

What to do?  Is there a third way beyond labeling and confrontation?

Recently I participated with a small group of clergy in a meeting with leaders of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE).  We had sent a letter asking for a meeting for the purpose of humanizing and better understanding one another.

To be clear I have grave concerns regarding the policies of our current administration towards undocumented immigrants.  I also know I have the capacity to view those tasked with enforcing such policies (ICE) as the opposition.

With this in mind we sent the letter asking for a meeting.  To our surprise ICE responded quickly welcoming such a meeting.  The meeting consisted of two ICE officers (one a senior official) and four clergy: a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Pentecostal pastor whose congregation includes recent immigrants and me (an American Baptist pastor).

For an hour we had a civil conversation.   The clergy group asked questions regarding ICE priorities and methods. We voiced areas of concern.  The ICE officers shared their perspective.

We also got to know the ICE officers as people.  My sense was that these two officers, one who had been working in ICE for over twenty years, are people of integrity, trying to enforce policies in as humane a manner as possible.

Let me be clear.  I think the policies being enforced are often inhumane.  For example, the current policy to separate children from parents at the border, as a means of discouraging immigration, is morally bankrupt https://action.aclu.org/petition/separating-families.

Yet, I think it is unfair to paint all ICE officers with a broad brush stroke.  They don’t set the policy.  They are tasked with enforcing a policy which I suspect can take a toll on their emotional and spiritual well-being.

For my part I am going to continue advocating for a more humane immigration policy.  I will continue to stand with our undocumented neighbors at risk.  My faith teaches that I can do no other.

What I won’t do is paint all ICE with a broad brush stroke. I won’t label them.  I’ll keep the officers and their families  in my prayers, as I surely keep in prayer those arrested and detained and their families.

I’ll work and pray for an immigration system that doesn’t dehumanize those seeking a better future and those tasked with enforcement.  I’ll remember that everyone has a story.

Perhaps that is the answer to becoming a more humane and unified society.  Moving beyond labels and listening to the stories of others.   In listening we discover our common humanity.