Worship in the Woods

As children, we know this to be true:  Nature inspires, fascinates and heals.   As adults, we can forget.  But the ‘child within us’, brings us back to this timeless truth.

I remember being with my daughter at age two and seeing her fascination, as she saw a  ‘wooly bear’ caterpillar for the first time.  She got down on all fours, close to the earth and watched amazed, as this fuzzy, black and orange striped caterpillar, inched ever so slowly, across our path.

Do you remember the last time you were as fully present, to what was right in front of you?  Do you remember the last time you allowed yourself to experience awe, wonder and such absolute delight?

This past Sunday, a group from the church I serve, travelled to Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH.  This little church, offers a profound and compelling witness to the wider community. https://kairosearth.org/church-of-the-woods

Rooted in the Christian tradition, this congregation has no building.  Their Sanctuary, is an 112 acre forest, clear-cut several times over, and slowly being restored to a healthy forest.

Their pastor, is Steve Blackmer, a professional forester, who in mid-life became an Episcopal priest.  The vision for Church of the Woods, arose from Steve and kindred spirits, who believe that we connect more deeply to the Creator, as we immerse ourselves in the beauty and wisdom of creation.

The altar around which we gatherd, is a stump of an old growth tree, cut down years before.  Upon the altar is placed a chalice and plate, to hold the Eucharist, reminding us of the body and life-force of God’s own child, Jesus.

 

 

 

Now gathered at your table, remembering that we are one with our Creator and with all creation, we offer to you from your own Earth these gifts of the land, this bread and wine, and our own bodies – our own living sacrifice.

Fill us with your Breath, O God, opening our eyes and renewing us in your love.  Send our Spirit over this land and over the whole earth, making everything a new creation.

 

After the liturgy, we are invited to quietly walk the paths of the forest.  With open eyes and hearts we seek to awaken to what nature has to say.  Martin Luther, centuries ago, said: “The call of a bird, the sound of a brook, the wind against one’s face, is but a ‘little word’ to us, from the Creator.”

 

Reverent play at Church of the Woods, as the children lead us.

For an hour or so, on a late afternoon, we walk,   ages 5 – 75.   We walk, look and listen, closely, carefully.  We are mindful of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘Listen, and your soul will live’.

 

As the sun begins to set, we conclude the liturgy with these words:

 

 

 

‘God of abundance, you have fed us with the bread of life and the cup of love.  You have reunited us with Christ, with the Earth and with one another.  Now, send us forth in the power of the Spirit that we may proclaim your love and continue forever in the risen life of Christ’.

May it be so.

 

In Praise of Wild and Lonely Places

There is something evocative about slowing down and becoming quiet.  A primitive, even visceral desire, to strip away the distractions and focus on that which matters.

For many of us, getting outdoors, is a way of focusing on that which matters.  We do so by working in our garden, hiking, snowshoeing through the woods or walking on the beach.

We are drawn to that which allows our hearts, minds and imaginations to expand. To be reminded that we belong to the cosmos, not just to our daily routines.

Stephen Hiltner taps into this desire in a provocative article in the New York Times entitled: ‘In Britain, Enraptured by the Wild, Lonely and Remote’. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/21/travel/in-search-of-britains-bothies.html?partner=rss&emc=rss He writes of a journey through the wild lands of the United Kingdom, finding refuge and inspiration in isolated huts called ‘bothies’.

A vast majority of bothies are repurposed structures — crofters’ homes, shepherds’ huts, mining outbuildings — that have been salvaged from various states of disrepair by the Mountain Bothies Association, a charitable organization founded in 1965 whose aim is “to maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places.” Some, like Warnscale Head in England’s Lake District, date to the 1700s. Collectively, since they came into recreational use in the 1930s as weekend getaways (sometimes used clandestinely) for working-class laborers, bothies have given rise to a unique culture that values communal respect for fellow visitors, for the bothies themselves and for the land on which they’re situated.

Such wild and lonely places remind me of a week spent on the Longtrail, in Vermont.  With my cousin, Tom, we spent that week moving from rustic hut to hut, soaking in the vistas and silence.

On the Longtrail, there is a tradition of receiving a ‘trail name’ that evokes who you are, or, what you hope to be.  My name was ‘Slow and Easy’.  The name reflects a tendency when on the trail, to linger and savor what the trail has to offer.  While some seek to conquer the trail by bagging a maximum of miles per day, my goal was to experience what was right in front of me.

Travelling ‘slow and easy’ was somewhat counterculture on the trail and certainly is countercultural in our plugged in, highly scheduled lives.

Back to the line I opened with: ‘There is something evocative about slowing down and becoming quiet’.

John Muir lived this truth. He was a mystic and founder of the Sierra Club in the 1930’s.  His formative years were nourished by the wild and lonely places in Scotland.  Later, as a youth, his family emigrated to the United States in the 1870’s and it was there that he fell in love with the wild and lonely places of America.

The moors of Scotland and the mountains of Yosemite, evoke a sense of awe, wonder and belonging to that which is greater than oneself.  Muir wrote:

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Muir’s words reflects that which drew monks and mystics for millenniums to the out-of-the-way places.  Yet, we know too, that such wild and exotic places are simply pointers to that place we can enter each day.  A reminder to slow down, reflect and reconnect, to that Source which is eternal, which is good, lasting and true.

The portal to such a place, begins by simply slowing down and becoming quiet.

Isaiah, an ancient prophet said: ‘Listen and your soul will live’.

May it be so.  Wherever your path may lead.

 

 

Tree of Life

Saturday morning I attended a board meeting in Pittsburgh, for a public health ministry in Nicaragua.  We chose Pittsburgh because of civil unrest in Nicaragua,  It wasn’t safe for us to travel.   Our board’s focus was on how to provide access to health care, in the midst of growing violence and uncertainty in that country.  We chose Pittsburgh because it was easy to get to and considered safe.

As we met, several miles down the road, a man with an assault rifle entered Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered eleven Jews gathered for worship.   They were the ‘minyans’ mainly older faithful Jews, who gather early, to begin the Saturday morning Shabbat services.   Others, such as busy parents, would  join them as their schedules allowed.  The role of the minyan is to hold the sacred space, for others to join them.

It was a typical Shabbat, until a white male with a history of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, broke in and murdered eleven…wounded several others, including four police officers.

We all thought Pittsburgh was safe.

The reality is we live in a volatile time.  Barack Obama as the first African-American elected president, led to a dramatic increase in white supremacist organizations.  Donald Trump’s political ascendency and presidency is based in part, on  promoting an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.  A focus on division rather than unity.

This week that division was evident:  Pipe bombs mailed to over 14 leaders within the Democratic Party; two African-Americans murdered at a grocery store, after the assailant was turned away from an African-American Church; eleven Jews murdered while worshiping.  Each act of violence by a white supremacist.  An ideology which finds encouragement (intentional or not), in the freewheeling rhetoric of our highest elected official.

So what is the antidote to hate and division?

The answer is simple yet profound:  Building relationships.  It’s hard to label a person or be indifferent to their plight, once you know their name, their story.

Sunday night, we gathered as a community at Temple B’nai Abraham.  My friend Rabbi Alison Adler, on only several hours of notice, gathered together 300 neighbors, from ten different faith communities, to grieve the atrocity visited upon Tree of Life Synagogue. We gathered too, in response to the nationwide increase in anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant violence.

Passover at the home of Rabbi Alison.

We came together to remember that we belong to one another.  At the Temple I said: ” I am here tonight because Rabbi Alison is my friend.  Her family and my family have been in each other’s home.  We have broken bread, played and prayed together.  And, because we are friends, when someone messes with my friend (anti-Semitism) they are messing with me.  I am responsible to and accountable for the well-being of my friend (s).”

The antidote to hate and violence is found in relationship building.  I challenge myself and you, to get to know those who are different from you. Get to know neighbors of different religions, ethnicities, race, nation of origin, sexual orientation, political perspective, languages.  Listen to one another’s story.  Let the other get to know you.

If you don’t have enough diversity in your life, then get out of your zip code.  Reach out. Find ways to rub elbows.  Break bread, sip wine, play games, talk with… someone who is different than you.

As relationships are built, prejudices based on ignorance, melt away.  The rhetoric of fear and the house of cards it is built upon, collapses.

The poet William Stafford, writes ‘the real enemy, is the one who whispers in your ear, telling you who to hate’.  As citizens, as neighbors, may we be wary of those who sow division.

On Sunday night, Temple B’nai Abraham was a beautiful mosaic of faiths and backgrounds.  We gathered to grieve with and draw strength from the company of one another.

Jesus said, ‘perfect love, casts out fear’.  May it be so.  For all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.