Risking Everything

Life is full of risk.  This feels particularly true in our uncertain and chaotic time.

The nature of risk is to calculate the best course of action.  Sometimes the path forward is clear.  Other times uncertain.  Sometimes we have good options. Other times not.

We awaken at 3 a.m. working our worry beads as we seek to discern the best path forward, as we struggle to understand (and accept) what we can control and what we can’t.  The concerns we carry are legion: health issues, well-being of loved ones, concern for institutions and causes we hold dear.   We worry over the right path to take.

In the midst of my worry, I came across this poem by David Whyte.  It is a call to ‘risk ourselves for the world…to hazard ourselves for the right thing’.

WE ARE HERE

We are here essentially to risk ourselves in the world. We are a form of invitation to others and to otherness, we are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing, for the right woman or the right man, for a son or a daughter, for the right work or for a gift given against all the odds. And in all this continual risking the most profound courage may be found in the simple willingness to allow ourselves to be happy along the way….

From ‘LONGING’ In CONSOLATIONS:
The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.
© 2015 David Whyte

The poem ends with this line ‘in all this continual risking the most profound courage may be found in the simple willingness to allow ourselves to be happy along the way….’

Uncertainty is a given.  The willingness to risk for a cause we believe in is our choice. So is the choice to be happy in the midst of the uncertainty.

For me as a person of faith my ‘happiness’ is rooted in the belief that God who is the source and author of love is with usWith us when we work our worry beads at 3 a.m..  With us when the path forward is uncertain.   With us when we risk for a  cause we believe in.

There are no guarantees in life.  We know this to be true.

But it is also true that in the midst of life’s uncertainty is the comfort in knowing that we journey not alone.  We look around and  find others to travel with, to work with, to risk alongside.

And for people of faith like me, we find strength in knowing that we journey not alone. A belief that the God who created heaven and earth is with us and goes before us, preparing the ground for that which is life-giving.

The theologian William Sloan Coffin offered this:

I love the recklessness of faith….first you leap and then you grow wings.

It takes courage to take a leap of faith.  William Sloan Coffin’s metaphor promises that wings will be provided when we need them the most.  When we feel vulnerable, anxious, uncertain.

None of us knows what the future holds but faith reminds us that we journey not alone.  And this graces us with moments of happiness along the way. Even in times of uncertainty and risk.

That’s good enough for me.

 

 

Radical Availability

For some people believing in God doesn’t work.  One friend, a scientist, requires proof that can be objectively quantified and measured.  Another friend attended a Christian seminary.  For a few years he served as a chaplain on a college campus.  But it didn’t fit for him.  He wasn’t a theist.  The concept of a God that is involved and engages our human condition doesn’t fit for everyone.

But that’s not me.

Since I was a boy I have been graced with a deep-seated belief that God is real.  My belief can’t be measured or quantified.  It is based not so much on doctrinal teachings but an experience of that which my tradition calls Spirit.  While my understanding of God continues to evolve, my awareness of a sacred presence remains with me.

In Judaism (Genesis 1: 1,2) the Spirit of God is reflected in the word ruach which speaks of the breath of the Creator bringing the cosmos into being.  In the Gospels the word for Spirit is pneuma which like ruach reflects the essence of the Divine being breathed into creation, including you and me.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruach_(Kabbalah) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pneuma

Why does the Spirit resonate for some of us and not for others?

What I have is my experience and the stories that others share with me.  Experiences that are sometimes subtle and other times ecstatic.  Witnessing to the movement of the Creator’s breath being breathed into ordinary lives.

Theologian Gerrit Scott Brown offers that receiving the gift of  Spirit requires an openness. What he calls ‘radical availability’:

Heeding God’s call can mean leaving home and all that is familiar.  It can demand our accumulated wealth and security or dare us to place our blessings, even our lives, at risk. It can also mean simply living where we are but with an entirely new set of priorities. In every case, our particular vocation in God’s service arises from our response to the basic call to radical availability.

This Sunday in my tradition is Pentecost.  That day when the Holy Spirit entered into a dispirited, fearful group of Jesus’ followers.  The Spirit filled and transformed them.  Transformed from fear to courage, from despair to hope.  (Acts 2: 1 – 13)

The Spirit filled and inspired these ordinary men and women to leave the safety of what they knew, for the promise of being both blessed and a blessing.

For me the Spirit is real.  As familiar as the air I breathe and the sun against my face.

I can’t objectively prove, measure or quantify this ethereal gift called Spirit. Nor do I feel the need to.  All I can do is share my story and say ‘thank you’ for this gift.

Kindness, No Small Thing

I spend a fair amount of time in hospitals.  As a pastor I visit people in all sorts of circumstances.  Sometimes I’m sitting with my own family.  On one memorable occasion I  was the patient waiting for biopsy results, being prepped for surgery and then the process of recovery.

Being in a hospital provides ample time for waiting. We sit with our emotions or the emotions of others.  Often we feel vulnerable, placing our well-being or the well-being of a loved one, in the hands of another.   We wait, we pray, we hope.

I’m always mindful that each person has their own story….patients, family members and staff.  A hospital is a container for the emotions that make up the human condition: Anxiety, vulnerability, despair, grief, kindness, hope, healing.

In the intensity of this setting there is no such thing as a ‘small act of kindness’.


Recently I sat in a large hospital reception area sipping a cup of coffee.  To the side was a man seated at a piano.  As people waited for their appointment or for a loved one, he quietly played a variety of jazz and standards, making each piece his own.  An accomplished pianist his music was designed to help us relax.

One woman with tears released a long sigh.  A man holding a sleeping child closed his eyes and nodded his head to the music.  A few children held hands and danced.

Around his neck was a lanyard  which read’ volunteer’.  Thanking him for his kindness I asked how often he played at the hospital, he responded: ‘Once a week for a few hours.  I retired a few years ago from teaching and playing music allows me to give something back.  I know from experience that hospitals can be a stressful place.  If my music can make things a little easier, why not?’


We know, there is no such thing as a small act of kindness.  Every expression, particularly in the heightened setting of a hospital, is a blessing, a gift, a balm.

Thank you to the piano man. Thanks to each of you for the kindness you show.

 

Martin 50 Years Later

Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago.   Murdered as he confronted systemic injustice fueled by racism.  His civil rights advocacy led to the end of legal segregation and enforced voter suppression. What hasn’t changed is the persistence of racism.

On March 18th Stephon Clark was shot by police in his grandparents backyard in Sacramento.  Police were called to the neighborhood because of reports of a man breaking car windows. Two officers saw Stephon and fired 22 shots, eight hitting and killing him.  They thought he had a gun.  What he actually had in his hand was a cell phone.  Initial autopsy reports that the first six shots struck Stephon in the back. https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/3/21/17149092/stephon-clark-police-shooting-sacramento

The shooting is currently under review.  If this is like most police shootings, no charges will be filed against the officers.  What this highlights is a racial bias in the so-called judicial system, against people of color, particularly against young men.  People of color make up a disproportionate percent of the prison population. People of color serve longer prison terms for the same offense as compared to a white person.

This was true in Dr. King’s day.  It’s true now.

Racism is also at work in our current political climate.  Scratch below the surface of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of President Trump and Jeff Sessions and you’ll find racism.  In Mr. Trump’s world view, Mexicans are ‘murderers, rapists and drug dealers’.  In this world view we need to militarize our border.  We need to fear ‘the other’.  In almost every case ‘the other’ is a person of color.

Dr. King was martyred because he stood over against the fear and hatred of his time.  He was demonized by his opponents.  The Black Lives Matter movement seeks to continue Dr. King’s principles.  They too are demonized by their opponents.

So why do we talk about Dr. King’s dream  5o years later after his death?  Why didn’t the dream die with him?

Simply put, because he offers truth.  The truth that ‘hate is to great a price to pay’.  The truth that ‘only selfless love can make an enemy into a friend’.

Racism is a shape shifter.  It takes many forms.

Yet it has no place in a healthy society.  No place in a healthy person.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man guided by a source of wisdom that is eternal.  That comes from the very presence of God.

On one occasion King received word that his home in Montgomery had been bombed.  After reassuring himself about the safety of his wife and baby he had to confront the rage of a crowd bent on retaliation.  Dr. King said:

We cannot solve this problem of racism through  retaliatory violence.  We must meet violence with nonviolence.  Remember the words of Jesus, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”…We must love our white brothers, our enemies,  no matter what they do to us.  We must  make them know that we loved them…We must meet hate with love.’

Martin King’s love was not passive.  It organized.  It confronted.  It persevered in the face of injustice.  His message offered a new way of being.

Dr. King didn’t believe in ‘us’ and them’.  For Martin there was only ‘us’.  May it be so.

 

 

 

Hope is Rising

With each school mass shooting my prayer is always the same: ‘May this be the tipping point that awakens us’.  Thurston High School, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and so many others.  But with each shooting the NRA doubles down.  Politicians who rely on the NRA for funding and political endorsement resist reasonable gun control.

But Parkland feels different.  Student leaders have risen from the trauma of seeing seventeen classmates murdered and fifteen wounded.  This time they say ‘thoughts and prayers’ won’t cut it.  What they are demanding is new gun control legislation (universal background checks, outlawing assault weapons and high capacity magazines).

They won’t back down.  They won’t go away.

I think of a prophecy in the Bible ‘ a child shall lead them’ (Isaiah 11: 6-9).   Perhaps the words of the Prophet have come to fulfillment yet again.  I hope  and pray  so.

Below is a powerful poem by Alison Luterman.  This poem speaks to the hope that these young leaders have stirred within me and my generation.

A new generation is stepping forward to lead.  To put a spotlight on the greed and hypocrisy of the gun merchants and their political lackeys.

It is time for my generation to follow. To encourage.  To support the change that is coming.  That must come.

No more Sandy Hooks. No more Parklands.


A new breed of activists is emerging.  Hope is rising.   Do you see them?  Will you add your voice to theirs?

 

The New Breed– for Emma Gonzalez and the other student activists

I see her on TV, screaming into a microphone.
Her head is shaved and she is beautiful
and seventeen, and her high school was just shot up,
she’s had to walk by friends lying in their own blood,
her teacher bleeding out,
and she’s my daughter, the one I never had,
and she’s your daughter and everyone’s daughter
and she’s her own woman, in the fullness of her young fire,
calling bullshit on politicians who take money from the gun-makers.
Tears rain down her face but she doesn’t stop shouting
she doesn’t apologize she keeps calling them out,
all of them all of us
who didn’t do enough to stop this thing.
And you can see the gray faces of those who have always held power
contort, utterly baffled
to face this new breed of young woman,
not silky, not compliant,
not caring if they call her a ten or a troll.
And she cries but she doesn’t stop
yelling truth into the microphone,
though her voice is raw and shaking
and the Florida sun is molten brass.
I’m three thousand miles away, thinking how
Neruda said The blood of the children
ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood.
Only now she is, they are
raising a fuss, shouting down the walls of Jericho,
and it’s not that we road-weary elders
have been given the all-clear exactly,
but our shoulders do let down a little,
we breathe from a deeper place,
we say to each other,
Well, it looks like the baton
may be passing
to these next runners and they are
fleet as thought,
fiery as stars,
and we take another breath
and say to each other, The baton
has been passed, and we set off then
running hard behind them.

–Alison Luterman

Hope Springs Eternal

Nine days until Spring and our third blizzard in ten days is about to hit.  In New England we pride ourselves on our ability to endure.  But truth be told, this winter is stretching the patience of the most hardy among us.

Yet there are signs of Spring all around.  In my backyard the call of newly migrated birds greet me.  Even in the midst of the storms, the birds are busy building nests and looking for a mate.

Waiting for a blanket of snow.

In my garden tulip bulbs planted last Fall are emerging.  Tomorrow they’ll be blanketed by up to a foot of snow.  The snow however won’t last.  The tulips will continue to rise and perhaps in time for Easter, break into bloom.

Spring we know is both a season and a metaphor for what ails us.  Watch the news and listen to the most recent political pronouncements and it’s enough to believe that sanity and hope is lost.

Yet Spring is coming despite another snow storm and despite the craziness in Washington D.C.  As a person of faith, I believe that the Spirit is always at work, preparing the way for that which is life-giving.  Theologians have a term for this prevenient grace, the deep-seated belief that there is more going on than meets the eye.

Underneath the fear mongering of politicians and the seeming complacency of so many, the Spirit is at work.  Alison my friend and a rabbi, reminds me that the creative breath, ruach,  that brought the cosmos into being continues to be at work.  In my Christian tradition we speak of the Holy Spirit, God’s own breath being breathed into creation including regular folk like us.

This is all to say that chaos, injustice and despair will never have the final word.  Soon the big storm will come with a forecast of high winds and deep snow.  But underneath the snow the tulip grows.   Praise be!

 

 

Remembering Billy Graham

My call to Christian ministry came when I was fifteen.  I sensed that I was being ‘called’ to become a pastor.  That I’ve maintained that sense of call for forty-five years is for me a testament to the working of God’s Spirit.

I have many influences that helped shape my faith.  One of those early influences was Billy Graham.  Rev. Graham died today at age ninety-nine.

As a boy I remember watching Billy’s evangelistic ‘crusades’ on television.  The messages were always straightforward: ‘God loves you and all you need do is confess your sin and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and eternity with God is yours’.


Billy would hold up his  Bible and with the warm cadence of a preacher from North Carolina, he’d proclaim ‘the answer to every human longing is to be found in Scripture’.   His sermon would always conclude with a choir singing ‘Just As I Am’ as people were invited to profess their faith.

As a kid from stoic New England, I was moved by adults of all ages and races coming forward by the thousands, often with tears, to receive a prayer of forgiveness and acceptance.  Many people were then connected with local faith communities within which to continue their life as disciples.

It is estimated that this farmers son from North Carolina preached to 215 million people from more than 185 countries.  Throughout it all, Billy maintained a spirit of humility and never succumbed to the scandal of the prosperity gospel with its opulent wealth, nor inappropriate conduct too often found with ego driven evangelists.

It has been a long time since I was fifteen. I remain grateful for the easy cadence of Billy Graham’s preaching, which helped awaken a ‘call to ministry’ within me.

My own theology is broader than that of Rev. Graham and his primary emphasis on a personal  faith commitment.  With notable exceptions (refusing to preach to segregated audiences and speaking out against the proliferation of nuclear weapons) he avoided social issues.

The impact of my own relationship with Christ, has brought me to picket lines for racial justice, against war, access to health care and for immigration reform.  My partners on the line include Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims Unitarians and secular partners.

The older I’ve become the more universal my faith is.  I find beauty and truth in other faith traditions too.  Yet, my personal relationship with Jesus remains primary to my call. I have Billy to thank.

The essential message that he preached for so many years, remains central: “God loves you”.  To this I say ‘Amen’.

For the life of Billy Graham, we give thanks to the Lord. May his message of ‘love’ rooted in faith, continue to be spoken by many languages and by many faiths.