The Practice of Encountering Others

We live in a fearful world. We read about or experience random acts of violence. In a 24/7 news cycle we may become suspicious of those we don’t know and tempted to surround ourselves with those who are familiar and make us comfortable.

The flip side is that it is often the stranger, the one we do not yet know, who offers a blessing. I recently flew with a family member who became ill while on the plane. Seated next to me was a physician from Turkey. He offered compassionate advice that helped my family member feel better. He and I then spent the next two hours of our flight talking about his life as a secular Muslim in Turkey and my life as a pastor in Massachusetts. We exchanged our email address to continue the conversation.

I also enjoy getting to know my neighbors who are homeless. The church I serve provides meals several times a week to neighbors on the streets or who simply want company. This past week I talked fishing with a few men who worked in the fishing industry in Gloucester and now are on the streets. I learned much from these men and now when we see each other in our shared neighborhood we know each other’s name and greet each other as friends.

Two women

To often we separate ourselves from one another. It is easy to pre-judge the other without knowing their story. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, ‘An Altar in the World’, believes that encountering others is a spiritual practice. It is this practice that leads us from fear to freedom, from ignorance to knowledge, from resentment to friendship. How to start? Start with ‘hello’.

The Practice of Wearing Skin

I like to be naked. For reasons I’m not fully cognizant of I like taking off my clothes. Not at inappropriate places or times but when I’m alone or with my wife or in nature. I find it freeing to cast off my clothes and wearing only my birthday suit jump into a lake or mountain stream.

Many years ago while serving a church in Montana, I was hiking in the Crazy Mountains with several new friends. After a hot day of backpacking up the mountain we found ourselves sunning on a rock overlooking a beautiful alpine lake. As I lay on the rock I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the stone easing my tired muscles and the sun on my face. Soon I heard a splash and then another. Opening my eyes I saw clothing cast around me and my companions now au natural swimming. What to do? Would I uphold my native New England reticence or take a dip? The water felt great.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book, ‘An Altar in the World’ reflects on the Christian concept of the incarnation, the belief that the Word of God became flesh in the life of Jesus. She reminds us that this is radical stuff, that God the creator of heaven and earth would choose to make a home in the human body. Even more our tradition teaches that we are created in God’s image (Imago Dei). Understood in this way we are each a reflection of that great mystery we call God and hence have inherent worth and beauty. Do we believe this to be true?

In truth many of us don’t. We focus on our imperfections rather than our beauty, our limitations rather than our strength. Over time we acquire scars, nicks, pounds and wrinkles. Far to often we judge ourselves or others. We buy into ideals of what the physical should be forgetting that we too are God’s creation, God’s child.

As an antidote, Taylor writes: “I think it is important to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror sometimes, especially when you are full of loathing for your body. Maybe you think you are too heavy. Maybe you never liked the way your hipbones stick out. Do your breasts sag? Are you too hairy? It is always something. Then again, maybe you have been sick, or gone through surgery that has changed the way you look. Too many of us stay covered up or even bathe in the dark…This can only go on so long, especially for someone who believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror and say, ‘Here I am’. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.”

We live in a society that judges and objectifies based on appearance. Too often my Christian tradition has avoided focusing on the body as unseemly. We’ve focused on shaping the intellect and neglected physical, sexual and ecstatic expression.

Too often we’ve forgotten that David danced naked in the Temple. We’ve forgotten that Jesus held the leper with his oozing sores. We’ve forgotten that Jesus’ final instructions had to do with washing the feet of others and breaking bread. Physical acts that involve touch, cooking and eating together.

MFA scuplting by Kollwitz

We all wear skin, initially smooth and with a healthy glow and if we are fortunate enough, in time we acquire wrinkles, moles and blotches. Whatever the condition of our skin we are invited to look at our self and others as beautiful because of the Creator from whom we come and to whom we will all one day return.

Note: For those who live in the North Shore of Massachusetts, the church I serve First Baptist in Beverly is spending the summer reading and reflecting on the book An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. To learn more or watch a sermon podcast go to: click on heading ‘Worship’.

Getting Ready for the Big Storm

People are fascinated by talk of a BIG STORM. The weather professionals heighten our anticipation giving us a step by step breakdown of the storms impending arrival. We rush to the store for milk, bread and batteries. Those of us with miles on our odometer hearken back to the Great New England Blizzard of 1978. Anyone who lived through it has a story to tell.

Blizzard of 1978

Storms have a way of bringing people together. In many ways it brings out the best in us. We tend to check in on our neighbors. My Mom age 92 lives in Rhode Island and looks forward to a storm because she knows her neighbors will look out for her. Today I asked: ‘Mom what will you do if the lights or heat go out?’ She said: “Paul and Sue down the street have a generator, they said I could stay with them.”

Storms also have a way of highlighting the precariousness of our neighbors who live on the streets. In the city I live efforts are being made to let people know that an emergency shelter is available. I think back to another community I lived in where a homeless friend named Rusty died of exposure.

On this eve of the storm we offer a prayer for city workers who plow our streets and first responders who do their best to keep us safe. And we offer a prayer for those of us who are most vulnerable.

Tonight weather experts tell us the BIG STORM will come. They think it may even be bigger than the Great Blizzard of 1978. My hope is that we will take good care of each other and afterwards have only good stories to tell.

Can’t Go Home Again?

After 30 plus years I recently returned to the land of my birth. Anyone who has lived far from home understands that a piece of oneself remains in that place where ones identity was shaped and formed.

Growing up in New England, Rhode Island specifically, I realized in my early 20’s that I needed to move away. I realized that I needed to stretch myself without the parameters of that which was familiar. I’m glad I left.

For the next 30 plus years I lived in Montana, California, Ohio and for the last 20 years in Oregon. Each place I have enjoyed and learned and received much. Oregon in particular is a wonderful place to be.

Yet as I got older I realized that there was a deep call from within me calling me home. I felt like a salmon being compelled to swim back to the tributary that gave it birth.

Now back in New England I find myself settling into the comfortable rhythm of the region. Last night I attended Fenway Park and sipped ‘clam chowda’ from Legal Seafood as I watched my Red Sox. How cool to have good chowder within the sights and sounds of Fenway!

This past weekend I was installed as a member of the pastoral team at the new church I now call home. During the ritual I looked out at the faces of those I am still getting to know. The church seemed so new to me and at the same time very familiar, as if we’d known each other for a longtime.

Several family members joined my wife and me at church. My Mom, Millie at age 91, my Aunt Evelyn in her mid 90’s, both wonderfully engaged with life, my cousin Tom and his wife Doreen who are family but also good friends.

Harrop Family around the table.
Harrop Family around the table.

That afternoon, after the ritual of installation, I sat with my family around the table in our new (old) home-built in 1806. We talked over dessert and marveled that after being away for so long that we were back together.

I’m glad I left. I wouldn’t have become who I am without that time away. Yet it is good to be back. Many years ago in California I was feeling homesick. A church musician sang me a song entitled ‘He came along with me’. The song reminds us that wherever we go God goes with us.

The Good News is that whether we stay or go, that wherever we are, our God accompanies us. It is humbling and reassuring to know that God was and is in Rhode Island, Montana, California, Ohio, Oregon, Massachusetts and everywhere else.

Now I am back in New England the region of my birth. But I know that I’ve always been at home with that Holy Source that brought me/us into being and to whom I/we will all one day return. As surely as the salmon swims home.

Contemplative Paddling

We live in a culture that celebrates our ability to spin many plates, both professional and personal. We also remain highly connected through multi-media, not the least being the ubiquitous ‘Smart Phone’.

I’m not writing to bemoan the state of our culture. There is a lot to be said for the ability to multi-task and staying connected to our immediate and wider community.

Yet there are times when our brain, heart and spirit ask that we let our plates drop (for a while) and tune out from technology (for a while). The reason is that physiologically, emotionally and spiritually we need time to rest, reflect and restore.

A wonderful way to do this is through contemplative paddling. Recently I paddled with a group from the church I serve. We met early in the morning on the banks of a local lake. Our instruction was to limit our talking and to paddle slowly. We were given a meditation mantra from the Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hahn: “Breathing in I calm my spirit….Breathing out I smile….(inhale) Living in the moment….(exhale) This is the only moment…”

Kayak lone paddler photo

As we paddled on the lake, we were invited to practice this mantra when we found our thoughts pulling us away from being present to where we were. Half the time we simply floated and allowed the wind to take us where it would.

As we slowly paddled or simply floated we found that our minds, hearts and imaginations slowly began to be filled with the simple and profound beauty that was under and around us. Those busy spinning plates or glued to their computer, were missing the beauty that we floated upon.

3000 years ago a Jewish prophet named Isaiah offered this: “Listen and your soul will live”. From the waters of the lake we listened deeply, to the call of a mallard duck, to the soft wind, to the hopes and dreams that slowly emerged as we paddled or floated.

There’s a reason Jesus often removed himself from the demands and busyness of life, to go to a quiet place to pray, to listen. In the late 19th century a mystic and theologian named Soren Kierkegaard said: “The Sacred is always present, simply waiting to be found.”

Sometimes all it takes is time on the water to rest, renew and restore one’s soul. Sometimes all we need to do is slow down to find that a blessing is simply waiting to be found.

Paddle well.