Darkness and Light

The Winter Solstice has come and gone.  With each day the light lingers.

In my faith tradition, Advent has given way to Christmas.  Light illuminates the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

The seasons both cosmic and liturgical, remind us that the challenges of any given moment, give way in time, to that which is life-giving.    Such is our hope.

Such thoughts are welcome in this time of political turmoil, both within our nation and on a global scale.  I see the leader of my own nation demonize and trivialize the struggle of migrants fleeing violence and poverty.  The answer he offers is a wall to keep ‘the other’ out.   A wall of apartheid.  A wall built by fear.

Yet, we know that in a life of faith, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, there is only ‘us’.  Children of God.

Imago Dei.

We know, these migrants have names and stories, just like you and me.  We know that they are more than their labels.  We know that they are simply doing for their loved ones what we would do.

So into the darkness of this moment in time, we long for metaphors, stories of light and love, healing and hope.  As we look into a New Year, may the words of the poet, Madeleine L’Engle offer comfort and courage to one and all.

Into The Darkest Hour
by Madeleine L’Engle

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss –
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight –
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.

And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.

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.

 

Clueless in the White House

To those who wonder whether our President has racist and nativist tendencies, here is your answer.  A quote from today’s New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/11/us/politics/trump-shithole-countries.html?ref=todayspaper

President Trump on Thursday balked at an immigration deal that would include protections for people from Haiti and some nations in Africa, demanding to know at a White House meeting why he should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” rather than from places like Norway, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation.

Where does such arrogance and callousness come from?  Perhaps he has never met people who live in a developing nation or live in poverty here in the States.

If he did he would meet people who work incredibly hard in difficult situations to provide for their family.  He’d meet young people of great intelligence, who dream and aspire.  He’d meet moms and dads who worry and weep for their children who lack access to clean water and medical care.

If he did perhaps he’d learn some humility and compassion.  This man who was born to great wealth and given every opportunity.

To refer to those who struggle and aspire as living in ‘shithole countries’ is an insult to the beautiful people I’ve met and served with in developing countries.  His callousness is an insult to my great-great grandmother  Sarah,  a single woman who gave birth to her son in a work house in Manchester, England in 1867.  A place where the poorest of the poor went, when no one else would take them in.

In 1869 Sarah emigrated to the United States with her two year old son.  A single mother, dirt poor.  She made a way for herself by working in the textile mills of Rhode Island.  I am here because she had the strength and courage to make a new life.  I am here because the United States said there is a place for people like Sarah and her boy.

For Mr. Trump to disparage those who struggle and strive against overwhelming circumstance, to provide for their family, is a disgrace.  A disgrace to what it means to be an American. A disgrace to what it means to be a Christian.  A disgrace to what it means to be a human being.

What will we do?  As citizens will we allow this callous and shallow man to redefine who we are as a country?

As people of faith, inspired by the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40 ‘whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers you do unto me’… what will we say?  What we will do?

In my Christian tradition this is called a ‘come to Jesus moment’.  It is time for my fellow Christians, who have so freely embraced Trump, to stand up and say ‘no more’, ‘not in my name’.

We as a nation and as citizens of the world, deserve better than this man who lacks humility and a shred of compassion.  The eyes of the world are upon us.  What will we do?

 

 

Why We Sing

For thirty plus Christmas’ I’ve led groups of carolers.  I can’t carry a tune.  But I understand the importance and value of singing.  Particularly when singing to those among us who are feeling vulnerable.

First Baptist in Beverly, sharing the love.

We sing in nursing homes, memory centers, jails, retirement communities and on street corners.  We sing to folk who have lost a loved one.  We sing to encourage neighbors wrestling with addiction.

We sing to remind people that they are not forgotten.  To remind ourselves and those we sing for,  that as dark as any given moment may seem, that the light will come.  To lift up and celebrate the beauty found in community and mutual care.

In the Gospel of Matthew we hear these words:

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.

Matthew quoting words from the prophet Isaiah, reminds us that the embodiment of this light is Jesus.  It is this light come to earth in the story of Jesus, which inspires us to sing, to hope, to persevere.

Christmas is often a difficult time for people.  We have so many expectations of what the season should be…family, gifts, comfort, joy, peace.

Yet the reality for many doesn’t match the expectations.   Many of us are estranged from family, struggle to pay the bills, wrestle with addiction, face health challenges or worry over the future our children and grandchildren will inherit.

There is a lot of darkness in the world.  This is true.

Yet our faith teaches that the light enters into the darkness.   Light which cannot be extinguished  or contained.

Each year the story of Christmas comes to remind us that light has come.  An unlikely light in the form of an infant, born to peasant parents, during a time of military occupation. This child born homeless, wrapped in rags and placed in a feeding trough.

From this humble beginning a life-sustaining light has come.  A light which still burns.  A light that rests upon each woman, man, girl and boy.

This is why we sing.  To remind ourselves and those we sing to, that darkness never has the final word.  The light has come, once again.

Let us raise our voice in song.

 

 

Christian Hypocrisy and Roy Moore

Hypocrisy.  There’s no other way to describe the decision of many Evangelical Christians to stand with Judge Roy Moore.

Moore has seen his campaign upended by accusations from seven women that he sexually harassed or assaulted them as teenagers.  Moore is the Republican candidate for an open Senate seat from Alabama.

Judge Moore made his political career insisting that the 10 Commandments be engraved in stone and placed in the Court House; that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God; that same-sex marriage undermines the sanctity of traditional marriage; that abortion should be outlawed; that the Second Amendment has no limits.

It’s ironic that Moore who made his political bones on the basis of moral self-righteousness, is now accused by credible witness’ to sexual abuse of minors.  In his hometown it was an open secret  that Moore in his 30’s preyed upon teen girls.

Why then do so many Christian pastors and voters say that they are standing with Roy Moore?  The answer seems to rest with the growth of the Religious Right as a power broker in the Republican party.  https://www.memeorandum.com/171120/p8#a171120p8

For a growing number of conservative Christians the ends justify the means.  Their agenda includes:  Packing the Supreme Court with conservative justices; outlawing abortion rights; rolling back gay and trans-gender rights; limits to immigration; support for NRA.

Why these limited issues?  Why not advocacy for civil rights and social justice?

Consider the many societal  implications of Jesus’ teaching: “Whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers you do unto me.  When you clothe the naked and visit the prisoner, feed the hungry…it is as if you are doing it to me.” (Matthew 25: 31 – 46).

There is a lot of cherry picking going on within the Christian community. Choosing to focus on some issues to the exclusion of others.  Some choose to wrap their faith in the flag of nationalism and even nativism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativism_(politics)

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Imagine hearing the words of the Hebrew prophets and the teaching and witness of Jesus with fresh eyes and ears.  Imagine approaching the reading of Scripture with humility.  Humility in knowing that we each bring a cultural bias that effects what we hear and to see.  Imagine allowing the Spirit to open our hearts, minds and imaginations to what is possible.

In I Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul says, ‘now we see in a mirror dimly, but one day we will see (God) face to face’.  Our call is to approach our faith with humility.

I don’t know about you but I’m wary of those who say ‘behold sayeth the Lord’. Particularly those who condemn, exclude and divide.  Annie Lamott says it best:  ‘When God hates the same people you do then rest assured you’ve created God in your own image’.

The Christian faith teaches that we catch a ‘glimpse’ of what Paul speaks of when we see love, forgiveness, justice and compassion put into practice.  These are the voices we long to hear.  May it be so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Compassion Fatigue

There’s a lot going on.  Sometimes we want to pull the covers over our head and stay in bed.  The news feed on our phone and TV brings a daily litany of rage and woe.

Yesterday an earthquake, the second in two weeks hit Mexico, with 242 dead and counting.  Today Hurricane Maria with record winds is ravaging Puerto Rico and soon to hit surrounding islands, already laid waste by last weeks Hurricane Irma. Its been only a few weeks since Hurricane Harvey visited the Gulf Coast and flooded the city of Houston.

What to do?

Some of us stop watching the news.  It’s just too much to absorb.

Others write checks, offer prayers and even grab supplies and head down to help as best we can. It’s cathartic to do something.

There is however a deeper opportunity at hand.  A spiritual opportunity.  An invitation to remain open to the stories of those in harm’s way.

To see oneself in the face of the mom striving to provide for her children.  To identify with the dad who grieves the loss of a home.  To hear the exhaustion in the voice of a first responder.

Taking time to be present to the stories we read and the voices we hear can touch us at a deep level.  As we remain open,  rather than deplete us, each person’s story can serve to both humble us and inspire.

 

What I’m saying is that between avoidance and action is a third way.  A way of becoming more human.   To see the humanity in the face of a Syrian refugee, to wonder at the tenacity of a Houstonian swamping out their house, to relate to the fear of a child who worries what tomorrow will bring.  To see oneself in each of their lives.

Such openness is a spiritual practice.  A way of becoming more fully human, more alive and ultimately more connected and committed to the well-being of others.

Opening ones story to the story of others is an invitation to transformation. No longer is there a them and us….there is simply an us.

My faith tradition calls this communion, deep communion.  The belief that as we relate more deeply to others we find our true self and are met by the God of many names. The One who is the ground of all being.

 

Breaking Bread

A common denominator for the human condition is eating. Everybody has to eat and the act of breaking bread creates space for relationships to be formed. Some recent memorable meals include: Enjoying home-made potato soup with neighbors of the church I serve. Three times each week volunteers provide simple, delicious food for neighbors with tight budgets or living on the streets. I’ve gotten to know neighbors by name and those new friendships go beyond the dinner table. We bemoan another slow start by the Red Sox and sometimes go deeper by sharing our struggles. While the circumstances of life may differ we find that we have so much in common.

photo of shared meal

This past week I enjoyed gayo pinto and fried plantain in Nicaragua. I serve on the board of an organization called AMOS which empowers rural communities to improve their health care practices. Board meetings by definition are intensive and include looking at important but mundane topics like budgets and personnel policies. It is over a lunch that we renew, refuel and build relationships so essential for a healthy functioning organization.

This Friday my wife and I are invited to a table for Passover. Alison is a rabbi and our friend. Her husband Chuck is an amazing chef. Their son Leo is a wonderfully creative little boy. Rabbi Alison and family will host an eclectic group of 21 in their home. Over the Seder Meal we will tell the ancient story of Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom. In the breaking of the bread we remember our shared need and the opportunity it provides for the common good.

In my Christian tradition the Eucharist is a ritual for communing with God and with each other. When we ‘break bread’ together we remember who we are as we remember ‘the One and the ones’ to whom we each belong.

Breaking bread reminds us that too often people are excluded intentionally or unintentionally from the table by prejudice. Prejudice means we ‘pre-judge’ others without getting to know their story, learn their name and let them know who we are. Some in our political climate seek to build walls of fear and intolerance. They would have us judge and fear those we don’t know.

phot of table

The antidote to fear and prejudice is simple. All we need do is invite those we don’t yet know, to sit at our table or to look for an unfamiliar table and draw up a chair. It’s amazing what happens when we choose to break bread with others.

Holy Interruption

This afternoon my pastoral colleague Julie and I were standing on Cabot Street by the main entrance to the church. We were discussing an idea for some ‘garden art’ that would relay to the wider community that the church we serve is an inviting and welcoming place.

As we talked a man whom I will call Burt interrupted our conversation. With rapid bursts of speech he told us that he was arrested the previous night for public intoxication, that his girlfriend had thrown his possessions into an undisclosed dumpster and that he hadn’t eaten in several days. We smelled the beer on his breath and the sweat in his clothing. He told us he needed food and a place to stay. What to do?

It was agreed that Burt and I would sit down and have a conversation. As a result we prayed together and then I walked with him to a local restaurant for lunch and provided a way to get to a nearby town where he had family. With Burt it was hard to determine fact from fiction. What was clear was that here was a fellow wounded soul in need of a good meal and a little hope.

As Julie and I talked with Burt on the sidewalk of Cabot Street we both sensed that Burt’s interruption carried an invitation. An invitation for us as pastors to move from talking about welcoming, to putting that welcome into practice. We recognized that the church of Jesus Christ was not confined to what happened within the walls but more powerfully what was happening outside the walls.

Today, Burt with beer on his breath and sweat on his clothes reminded us that we were standing on Holy Ground. More than that we were standing in the very presence of Jesus. How so? Jesus says, ‘whatever kindness you do unto the most vulnerable of my children you do so unto me’.

We want to thank Burt for reminding us of this truth. The least we could do is buy him a sandwich and provide a way home.

Scandal

In John’s Gospel we hear:

‘Jesus knew that God had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.’

This story presents a great scandal of the Christian faith. That Jesus the Son of God humbled himself and took on the role of a servant. As a servant he stripped off his robe and in his underpants knelt down to bathe and dry the feet of his followers.

Peter didn’t want Jesus to do it. In part I suspect because Peter realized that he would be asked to do the same for others.

There is something particularly intimate and humbling about kneeling at the feet of another, washing their dirty, smelly feet. There is something particularly unsettling about Jesus the Christ serving in such a way.

Last Good Friday Pope Francis created controversy when he visited a shelter for youth living on the streets of Rome. As with Jesus the Pope kneeled down, washed and kissed the feet of the young people. The controversy was heightened when Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of a girl and a Muslim boy. He was rebuked by some in the Church because it was so ‘unseemly’.

Pope washing feet of youth

Pope Francis is being embraced within and beyond the Christian tradition because he understands the scandal of Jesus. He understands that God came in humility to show us how to live by showing us how to love. In Jesus we learn that compassion has come not just for some but for everyone, those who are like us and those who are different.

There’s something profoundly unsettling that God’s own child would come to serve in this most humble of ways. The great paradox of the way of Jesus is that the path to spiritual enlightenment comes only through a life of humility and service. Its a great mystery that we find our self as we give our self away.

As always the opportunity to serve and find is extended to you and me. May the scandal of Holy Week continue to unsettle and inspire.

Who is Your Neighbor?

I recently moved to a new community. The neighborhood I work in has a bustling downtown. Cabot Street features restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques that invite people to browse and visit. Often I cross paths with people I know, sometimes we offer a quick wave, often we stop and talk. One of the things I enjoy most about my neighborhood are the people I’m getting to know as friends.

Within the downtown are those less visible. They are our neighbors who are homeless. It is not uncommon for people to walk past the homeless as if they weren’t there. Perhaps we walk past because we think that their story is so different from our own? Perhaps we walk past because they remind us of our own vulnerability?

image of homeless

The church I serve has long been seen as a hospitable place for our neighbors on the street. We serve three meals per week for guests who are homeless or live on the margins. This past week we partnered with another church to house three families with ten children. Soon the winter weather will come and our most fragile friends will come seeking warmth,to use the restrooms or plug in a cell phone.

Providing hospitality isn’t easy. Some guests are active in their addiction or struggle with mental health issues. Sometimes we have to set boundaries for appropriate behavior.

Some churches lock their doors and see assistance as enabling. Some cities seek to criminalize the most vulnerable and force them into jails or to the next community.

I’m grateful for churches and communities that strive to provide a warm welcome and practical assistance. Gradually I’m getting to know the names and stories of my new neighbors on the street. I’m reminded that our stories have much in common.

Jesus in Matthew 25 says, ‘whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do unto me’. Jesus identifies with the most vulnerable at the deepest of levels and invites us to do the same.

Recognizing one another as a neighbor has all sorts of implications. As we get to know and care about each other, we begin to see the complex issues that bring someone to the streets. We begin to explore what social services are necessary for a healthy community to provide, so that all our neighbors are treated with dignity. But it all begins by simply knowing each other’s name.

.