Rise Up in Love

On Palm Sunday suicide bombers struck hours apart at two Coptic churches in northern Egypt, killing 44 people, injuring hundreds more and turning Palm Sunday services into scenes of horror and outrage.  The Coptic church is the earliest Christian presence in Egypt going back to the year 100.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the violence, adding to fears that extremists are shifting their focus to civilians, especially Egypt’s Christian minority. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-egypt-christian-church-bombing-20170409-story.html

That same week in Syria, 70 people, including children died,  the result of an air-launched chemical attack attributed to the ruthless regime of President Bashar al-Assad. http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/05/middleeast/idlib-syria-attack/index.html

What are we to make of such horrific events?  Is there any room for hope?

Holy Week for Christian’s begins with these words:

As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19: 41,42)

What is this way of peace that Jesus speaks of?

It is the counter-cultural way of forgiveness. Later that week, Jesus would look upon those who betrayed and crucified him with these words:

“Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Christianity teaches that three days later on Easter morning, the risen Christ was seen and touched. Whether you take this metaphorically or literally, the Easter story affirms this truth: That neither violence, fear or even death will have the last word…On that first Easter love expressed in forgiveness had and has the final word.

It’s been said: ‘We are called to be Easter people, living in a Good Friday world’. Whether you are Christian or not we are invited to claim the truth that evil never wins.

Pope washing feet of youthWe think of Pope Francis washing the feet of homeless children (Muslim and Christian) in Rome. A reminder that love has no boundaries, no limits. Each of us are invited, challenged to put love into practice. To offer an alternative to retribution and fear.

What forgiveness are we prepared to offer? Who are you and I called to embrace? What stranger are we called to befriend?

In time, ISIS and the Assad’s of the world will be a footnote of history. But the story of love’s capacity to persevere and show us the way will continue to be told.

This Holy Week let us pray for our Muslim and Christian sisters and brothers in Syria.  Let our hearts rest with our Coptic family under siege. May our Jewish friends be blessed as they walk through Passover.

Let us Rise Up in Love.

The Practice of Getting Lost

I don’t like being lost. I get agitated when my GPS malfunctions and end up miles from where I hoped to be. Most of us like life when it is predictable and safe. We like to be in control. We don’t look for opportunities to get lost.

But sometimes that is precisely what happens. Due to circumstances beyond our control we find ourselves lost and vulnerable: A suspicious lump needs to be biopsied, our job is downsized, our marriage goes south, a trust is broken.

Just when we think we are in control we are confronted by the reality that we don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what is around the next bend literally or metaphorically. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book ‘An Altar in the World’, suggests that such uncomfortable, unsettled moments can hold gifts. She writes: “I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the familiar path”.

This is not to minimize or romanticize how frightening it can be when lost. Yet the author reminds us that some lessons can only be found when lost.

Several years ago my physician informed me I had prostate cancer. I remember the fear that welled up in me at the sound of that one word, cancer. I felt lost as I struggled to navigate the medical wilderness. What was the right treatment plan? Anyone who has had a difficult diagnosis knows what I’m talking about.

Being lost

It has been eight years since cancer became part of my story and fortunately annual tests show me to be cancer free. Yet I resonate with the story of Jacob in the Bible who wrestled with a stranger throughout the night. In the end Jacob survived and was blessed with a new name ‘Israel’ which means ‘he who perseveres’. Jacob, now Israel, received a new name and was also left with a limp, a reminder of how fragile life is.

I have been lost many times. So have you. My time in the wilderness called cancer has taken some things from me and also given me gifts I otherwise would not have. One gift is the memory of being held, comforted by a presence that I call God. I can’t measure or quantify this but I know this to be true. Another is the reminder that life is a gift to be savored, relished, lived as fully and joyfully as possible. Another is gratitude for friends, loved ones and strangers who graced my life in life-giving and often surprising ways.

I’m not sure I would have found or fully understood the depth of such gifts if I hadn’t gotten lost. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we each add ‘getting lost’ to our list of ‘spiritual practices’. She isn’t trying to minimize the discomfort that comes in being lost. Yet paradoxically she knows that some gifts are found precisely when we are lost.

Forgetting Pentecost

This Sunday is Pentecost and I forgot. This troubles me in a big way. I realize for many the word has little if any meaning. But for me as a believer and as a pastor in a Christian church this is a big deal.

Pentecost is that wild, bizarre day when everything and everyone became un-hinged. A day we are told in Acts 2 when that mystery we call the Holy Spirit came upon the first followers of Jesus and they were transformed. It was as if everything became clear, all confusion fell away and each person knew that they were loved and known by God and each person knew they loved everyone and everything. Scripture says it was as if they were ‘on fire’ with this new awareness. It was a time of profound enlightenment. Everything was new. Everything was different.

And I forgot Pentecost.

pentecost-edfriedlander

It was only when Julie, my pastoral colleague leaving for vacation wished me a ‘good Pentecost’, that I realized I’d forgotten. My sermon, the music chosen, the prayers offered would have had no reference to this extraordinary day when the fledgling, fragile church of Jesus Christ was born.

My excuse for forgetting are many: I’d been away on vacation and attending meetings as a college trustee; my Mom’s health needed attending; the car needed to be repaired; families at church were in need; church meetings needed to be planned for etc.

But what troubles me is that Pentecost, when we remember that the Spirit moves in wondrous ways, had (at least for the moment) become secondary both for me and I suspect for some in the church I serve and the church universal.

What troubles me is that I know that the only path to renewal and spiritual transformation for me, the church I serve and the church universal is through openness to that great mystery we call Spirit.

What gives me hope however, is knowing that the Spirit has a habit of breaking into our carefully constructed lives and making all things new. We can’t constrain or contain the life-giving force we call the Holy Spirit.

The Good News is that Spirit comes even when we forget.

Counting Heroes

My friend Jerry counts heroes. It is his antidote to the daily barrage of negative news that come via our multiple forms of media. Under the premise ‘if it bleeds it leads’, those in the business of reporting the news often focus on stories that are violent and heartbreaking.

Such stories need to be told. But there are other stories too. Without a balance of stories that inspire, it can be difficult to get out of bed in the morning or have any semblance of hope.

In response to the challenges of daily living and the tendency of the media to highlight the negative, Jerry has taken to counting heroes. On a regular basis Jerry looks for stories that inspire and grace his life with meaning.

My friend points out that such stories are all around us, all we need to do is keep our eyes and ears open. Each story holds lessons and values that we can incorporate into our own life. Such stories inspire and empower us to live more fully in the present, to be optimistic and persistent in living out that which we value.

In the Sunday New York Times (January 15, 2015) I read an obituary for Robert E. White who was a career diplomat who served in every administration from Eisenhower – Reagan. He was a man who stood up for his principles, which reflected the values of the American people – a belief in democracy and human rights.

Photo of Robert E. White

Looking back on his career, Robert White wrote in 2001: “I was fired by the Nixon White House for opposing politicization of the Peace Corps, reprimanded by Henry Kissinger for speaking out on human rights, and finally dismissed from the diplomatic corps by Alexander Haig on behalf of President Reagan, for opposing a military solution in El Salvador in the 1970’s and 80’s.” He lived with the satisfaction of having stayed true to his core values.

Such heroes are all around us: People like Robert E. White. Teachers who go the extra mile every day for their students. Parents who sacrifice for the well-being of their children. The list of every day heroes is endless.

Yes, there’s lots of bad news and heartache in the world. Lots to keep us awake at night with worry. Yet, there are also heroes, well-known and little known, who remind us what a well lived life looks like, who remind us to hold onto hope even as we face the challenges of life.

Mary Oliver and the Gift of Red Bird

Yesterday, the great American poet, Mary Oliver died, at age 83.  Her poetry grew out of a love for nature, that served as a refuge during a turbulent childhood.  In the woods and ponds around her rural Ohio home, she found beauty, healing and hope. Throughout her adult life she would find wisdom and renewal in the her daily walks along the beaches and forests of Provincetown, Cape Cod.

Her poem Red Bird, invites the reader to look for the gift of color that breaks into the often grey and cold days of a New England winter.

Red Bird reminds us that beauty however fleeting, comes into even the darkest of times. May Red Bird speak to you.

 

Red Bird

Red bird came all winter
Firing up the landscape
As nothing else could.

Of course I love the sparrows,
Those dun-colored darlings,
So hungry and so many.

I am a God-fearing feeder of birds,
I know he has many children,
Not all of them bold in spirit.

Still, for whatever reason-
Perhaps because the winter is so long
And the sky so black-blue,

Or perhaps because the heart narrows
As often as it opens-
I am grateful

That red bird comes all winter
Firing up the landscape

As nothing else can do.

The Gift of Robin Williams

We mourn the passing of Robin Williams at age 63. He was an extraordinary person who touched the lives of millions as a comedian and actor. Initial reports suggest that he took his own life. A spokesperson for the family say that he wrestled for much of his life with depression and addiction.

His comedic genius served as a backdrop to my generation and touched the life of my children’s generation through endearing performances such as the Genie in the Disney animated film, ‘Aladdin’.

Robin Williams Photo

As an actor he won an academy award for his role as a grieving, empathetic therapist in ‘Goodwill Hunting’. In the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ he portrayed a beloved teacher who drew from his own reservoir of pain and spoke to the deepest longings of his students.

Robin Williams portrayal of these two fragile characters rings true because we sense that he brought his own vulnerability to the role. His experience resonated with our own sense of vulnerability and struggle.

As a comedian he had us rolling on the floor in laughter, even as we sensed that his comedic gift came from a fragile place. This connection between darkness and laughter wasn’t unique to Williams. His death feels so personal because his authenticity as a human being touched us deeply.

Robin didn’t hide his struggles but put them out for all to see. My hope is that his example will encourage and challenge each of us to be honest about who we are. One truth I’ve learned in 30 plus years of being a pastor is that no one has their act completely together, certainly not me.

We all have our areas of light and shadow, hope and despair. This mixed bag is what it means to be human. That Robin’s despair ultimately took his life should not discourage us from being open about our own vulnerability and struggles as well as our hopes and dreams.

His example challenges us to respond to the seemingly polite question: ‘How are you today?’, with an honest answer: ‘I feel good, happy’. Or, ‘I feel alone/anxious/sad/hopeless/angry’. The truth is most of us feel a mix of emotions every day.

In choosing to be emotionally authentic with each other, we have a responsibility to listen and be compassionate and caring. To let each other know that we have each other’s back. This is what it means to be part of a healthy community.

This is a bittersweet time. We are full of grief at the passing of an immensely talented, flawed and courageous human being. And, we are full of gratitude for the joy and depth of humanity that Robin Williams brought to us all. May God’s comfort be with his family and all who grieve his passing. To the Creator’s love we return his expansive soul.

Weddings and Idealistic Distortion

Seascape-Wedding-Coupl51DAThis evening I am officiating at the wedding of my cousin Chris and his fiancé, Laura. He and Laura are in their mid-twenties and have been dating since High School.

In preparation for the wedding they filled out an on-line survey designed by psychologists to help an engaged couple reflect upon various aspects of their life together: personality and communication style, finances, spiritual values, how they relate to family and friends etc.

Once the survey is completed I receive a summary which serves as a take off point for conversation. In the past 15 years I’ve used this tool with approx. 150 couples.

The summary includes a category called ‘idealistic distortion’. This measures how realistic the couple are in recognizing the challenges that come with married life. With 50% of marriages in the USA ending in divorce, the idea is to help couples manage the inevitable challenges that come.

Most young couples tend to have a relatively high rate of idealistic distortion, in other words a sense that their love will never fade. Older couples that I meet with, often married previously, bring in a higher level of awareness that life gets complicated.

This evening I will stand with Chris and Laura on a peninsula looking out to sea. We will gather as family and friends as we offer our blessing and ask God’s grace to uphold and accompany them throughout their life together.

As we do so, our ‘idealistic distortion’ as family and friends will be high. We will choose to be idealistic, choose to be hopeful, even as we know (from our own life and marriages), how complicated and challenging life can and be.

We will have great hope for Laura and Chris, because we know (and they know), that they are not setting on their life alone. Their marriage will be accompanied by the love, support and prayers of many.

One thing I say to each couple before I pronounce them married, is this: “Today you have made a life-long commitment to one another. But this is more than a two-way partnership. You are acknowledging your openness to the accompaniment of God, who is the source of all that is good, lasting and true…that which we call love.’

This evening our idealism level will be high. Because we know that Chris and Laura won’t journey alone. This is very good news.