Palm Sunday 2019, Avon Lake UCC

First there were hosannas.  Palm Sunday 4

And children waving palm branches. (Pastor Beau led them in, impressively walking backwards)
and it was smiles all around.  Palm Sunday 1
Palm Parade 11

Three acolytes, each in a white robe, accompanied the children in. One brought in the gospels volume of the St. John’s Bible and placed it on the holy table. Another brought in the Christ light, and the third brought in a cross.

After the children left to hunt for Easter eggs, the rest of us began to contemplate just what exactly it means to commemorate Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem.

All of a sudden, we remembered where this parade ends…and that we worship a God who suffers, a God who doesn’t take away our pain but redeems it.

“Hosanna!” Save us, too. Save us from racism so pernicious it led to the burning of three African-American churches in Louisiana this spring.

Save us from bigotry that led to the killing of worshipers in New Zealand last month.

Save our planet, especially when it seems like we’ve waited too long to start trying.

Save us. Hosanna.

There is no rising without pain, no Easter without Good Friday.

At the end of the service, the acolytes reappeared, walking into the church with more reverence and gravitas than I’d thought possible.

Each item was removed from the table; Beau and I spread a black cloth.
The Christ candle was placed in the center, this time surrounded by a crown of thorns.  Christ candle

The acolytes recessed with great dignity, carrying the Bible and the cross.

The sanctuary lights were dimmed to reveal only the shadow of the cross, and then the last liturgical act was performed: slowly the purple cloth was removed from the tall rustic cross in the corner, and left at its base.

Bells tolled at the 9 AM service. Jim sang “Were You There?” at 11.
Holy Week has begun.

Liturgy: the Work of the People

A Sabbath Life

img_1468-1When we offered a meditation class at our church this past fall, we anticipated we would have enough participants to make a go of it; we didn’t expect that nearly 40 would sign up. We chose the Enneagram as the topic for our annual women’s retreat for this winter, never imagining that more women than ever would find it interesting…so much so that for the first time in the retreat’s 24-year history we have a waiting list! I believe the responses to these two programs point to something deeper: a longing among many people to find a way for their lives to make sense, a thirst for an awareness of God’s presence in the midst of so much bad news, a hunger for meaning when our lives feel frazzled and distracted.

We have chosen Sabbath as our focus for 2019. Throughout the year, we will be sharing resources (articles, books, podcasts, etc.) about how to incorporate the spiritual practice of Sabbath into our everyday lives.

The word “sabbath” in Hebrew means “stop” or “keep”, according to most translators.

Here are some very simple ways to begin a spiritual practice of keeping the Sabbath:

  • Stop what you’re doing for five minutes, long enough to intentionally be aware of your breath, the breath of life, also known as the Spirit of God.
  • Stop (as best you can) the chatter in your mind for five minutes, and try to instead listen for what God might be saying to you.
  • For five minutes, observe something in nature – the tree outside your window, for example, and simply notice what you notice about it: its height, its width, its shape, signs of its health or disease…just practice the art of paying attention.

I began my morning by reading some of Mary Oliver’s poetry. While deeply saddened by news of her death yesterday, I am mostly grateful for her body of work. She teaches us how to be still, how to pray, how to pay attention. In addition to poetry, she wrote a book of essays called Upstream. Here are a few of my highlighted excerpts:

“…[we have] a responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently. To enjoy, to question – never to assume, or trample…to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly.”

“…a better, richer life is available to us…”

For Mary Oliver, living intentionally in a spirit of Sabbath was not an exercise in self-indulgence; rather, it led to an awareness of the needs of the world around her: “I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family…the pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”

What does it say about God’s love for us that God commands us to practice sabbath? God commands us to stop, to rest, to listen, to notice, because what God wants for us is not a life of mere survival, but a life that is abundant in joy, meaning and purpose.

‘Twas the Week Before Christmas

“What does the Christmas story mean?” There are many answers to that question. For me, above all, the Christmas story is about the bridging of gaps, especially the distance between what is human and what is divine. The Christmas story is the story of God choosing to enter the world as a human being, so that God would know what human life is like. As a result of what theologians call “the incarnation” (God becoming flesh), we humans feel less alone. We have a God who knows what it is to experience pain, joy, laughter, doubt – all of the ups and downs that make up human existence.

Some people find no spiritual significance in Christmas at all because they trip up on the details. “I just can’t believe in the virgin birth,” someone tells me. Or, “You know, the gospel writers themselves don’t even agree on the facts.” Perhaps they would be helped by reading the writer Marcus Borg, a man of deep faith, who wrote, “These stories don’t need to be factual to be true.” Borg provides a pathway towards the person of Jesus, a route that doesn’t require a traditional belief in the facts and details of the birth story.

Regardless of one’s path, Christmas can mean a coming-together. Christmas can provide physical reunions of family members and friends. Christmas can provide spiritual reunions as we remember those we have loved who are no longer physically present. Christmas cards and traditions reunite us with our own pasts. Distances are bridged.

This week I delivered communion to church members who are homebound and in senior living facilities. These are sacred moments for me. One of my hopes is that these church members realize that they are remembered and not forgotten, that their past faithfulness to the church is honored, that the distance they may feel from their church family is shortened.

This fall our church has been given the gift of hundreds of volunteer hours from residents of two local sober living facilities in our county. Most of the men at Primary Purpose and Road to Hope are seeking to recover after heroin addiction. Because of our partnership and ongoing relationship with these two organizations, we realized that there are men living there who are anxious to get out some during the day and feel productive. They are a tremendous asset! They helped patch our driveway and parking lot, repaint our corn hole boards, and paint our Fellowship Hall, among other projects.

So Thursday we invited several of them to our annual staff Christmas potluck, to thank them for their work.  We chatted together over lunch. One of them was clearly excited to be there. “I used to go to Boy Scouts here,” he said. “And I played in piano recitals here too.” He’d grown up in our community. As soon as we finished eating, he asked me if he could go into the sanctuary and play the piano. The word “yes” barely came out of my mouth before he leapt out of his chair. The rest of us were curious, watching through the glass doors.

A few seconds later, we heard music, and this caught the attention of our own organist and pianist who was still finishing lunch. Ruth walked into the sanctuary, too. We saw her leaning over, watching him play. Then we saw them talking together. And then she had joined him on the piano bench for some duets.

We sometimes think there is so much distance between us. Young and old. Those who are busy and stressed this season, and those who are lonely and sitting in nursing home rooms. Those with substance abuse disorders and everyone else…

IMG_1326But gaps can be bridged. Two people from different walks of life can sit on a piano bench together and make music together. It is communion. It is Christmas.

Cherish your one wild precious life

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(photo of a cottage, Lakeside/Chautauqua)

 

Friday morning. I am packing, preparing to return home after four days of study leave. I’ve spent the past 90+ hours on the idyllic campus of Lakeside, Ohio. My husband came up on Wednesday afternoon and we had dinner on Kelley’s Island. Yesterday I visited a friend’s lake getaway for an hour. Other than those two encounters, I’ve been by myself. I’ve been online, but haven’t turned on the TV. It’s been quiet and restorative. A lot of reading, writing in my journal, catching up on rest. The kind of break an introvert needs.

 
And then, in the midst of washing dishes this morning, my daughter texts me with the news that Anthony Bourdain has died of an apparent suicide. Just days after the tragic news of Kate Spade. I feel stunned and realize a few minutes later that I’ve dropped the dishtowel into the full sink.

 
There were several books I’d planned to read this week, most of them for work, and I did. Then I’d randomly grabbed several others from my “on-deck” shelf…yes, I was only going to be away for four days, but we book addicts panic if we run out of things to read, and besides, you never know which ones you’ll actually feel like reading at the time.
As it happened, I had an experience of synchronicity this week. Several of the books I brought with me were connected, though that was not my design. There were similar themes, ideas, the same authors referenced in several books – a meaningful coincidence. Let me summarize with a few brief quotes:
“I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive…the rapture of being alive” – Joseph Campbell
“Sometimes it takes darkness/and the sweet confinement of your aloneness/to learn/anything or anyone/that does not bring you alive/is too small for you.” – David Whyte
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” – Rumi
And then, Parker Palmer, who writes so often about “letting your life speak.”

 
The common thread is the inward journey, the journey of self-discovery, the journey that lasts a lifetime. The purpose of the journey is not self-centered, though it can seem that way at times. Here’s how Elizabeth Lesser puts it in Broken Open: “…if a desire to serve humanity or to find God comes from a rapturous engagement with life, then our service and our search will bear fruit. But if we try to love or lead, or work or pray, from a dry well, then we will serve a bitter cup to those around us and never really live the life we’re given.”
People who know themselves, who know their purpose, are better able to serve the world.
And so I think of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain:

  • I think of the lie, so pervasive in our culture, that says that externals will make us happy: looks, money, possessions, accomplishments. Can the deaths this week of these two people who were so phenomenally outwardly successful help us to begin to bury that horribly harmful misconception?
  • What about the lie that tells us that mental illness is shameful, that it shouldn’t be talked about?
  • I wonder what would happen if we could unleash into the world the life-saving good news that we are enough, that we are accepted, that we were created in God’s image and loved unconditionally?

This particular sabbath is over for me. I’m grateful for the time away and equally grateful to be heading back to the community I love, newly aware of the needs of our broken world.

From the Cutting Room Floor: Notes on Hope

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As I was thinking about my Easter sermon, I began noticing stories of good news; they were popping up everywhere like those green shoots that make their way through the frozen soil. These illustrations weren’t quite right for Easter Sunday, but I find hope in them…each of them defies former predictions of doom and gloom.

 

  1. We’ve heard it said the death knell has tolled for brick and mortar bookstores, primarily because of Amazon. When even a large chain like Borders shuttered, many people predicted that every bookstore would follow suit. But the week before Easter, I heard this piece of good news for readers everywhere, in a story on NPR: “Between 2009 and 2015, the number of independent bookstores grew by 35 percent.” They still face tough challenges, to be sure, including razor-thin profit margins, but some small, independent bookstores have found creative ways to not only survive, but thrive. They are becoming vital community spaces where people gather for food, drink, conversation and book discussions. They are hosting author’s events. Five bookstores opened in Washington, DC in the course of two years. One shop owner there attributes his success to this secret ingredient – real people!: “For all the convenience of online shopping, Amazon can’t compete with the fact that bookstores usually contain live humans.” And remember the other dire prediction of 2011? That e-books were going to eliminate real books? As it has turned out, most digital readers are also the largest consumers of print books.

 

  1. Those of us in the mainline Protestant church world are keenly aware of the decline in numbers across the board…every mainline denomination is losing numbers of congregants, and churches are closing at a rapid clip. Yet on Palm Sunday weekend, I heard from two of my colleagues, both of whom serve large-membership UCC congregations, that they had experienced their highest worship attendance ever. Numbers aren’t everything, and church growth is easier in some settings than others; the point is that decline is neither universal nor inevitable. It’s good news worth celebrating that some mainline congregations are flourishing, that new people are still attracted to the message of progressive inclusive Christianity.

 

  1. “Young people don’t care about mealtimes; family dinner is a relic of the past; no one even sits down to eat anymore.” There may be a kernel of truth in those complaints, but they are not the whole story. At Vanderbilt University (where I went to Divinity School), the administration noticed that undergraduates were busy: busy hustling to class, studying for tests, catching up on social media. The administrators observed this lifestyle and so proposed a “grab and go” counter at one of the residential colleges – a place where students could have quick access to a meal they could take with them. The students, however, balked. They said they cherished the community and connectivity of dining together. Who knew? During Holy Week, our church hosted a panel of high school students who answered questions from parents of younger children about what high school is like. Each student, unprompted, talked about how much they value time with their family and conversation with their parents. They may not always say it directly, but they did that Wednesday night, with candor and vulnerability.

 

I think of other examples, too. I remember hearing, not long ago, that there would be no more family farms; that all farmers would be forced to sell their land to a giant operation. Yet small, organic farms are on the rise, community gardens are burgeoning, the farm-to-table movement is popular, and farmer’s markets are booming. Why? Because people have decided these things matter. They add to our quality of life.

 

So do we just ignore all dire predictions? Of course not. Problems like climate change and racism are not going to solve themselves. Each of my examples proves, though, that people can and do change, habits follow, and trends can turn. People, real live human beings, are more powerful than statistics and trends and data. We have the ability, when we choose, to make a difference. It begins when a few people speak up about what has value for them, and others join the chorus.

A Lonely Night

12439135_10153431828043763_1340148815093656745_nWhen the podcast “Hidden Brain” notified listeners that they were producing an episode about loneliness among men, their voice mail box filled quickly. Here are two of the anonymous messages they received:

“Loneliness and social isolation has become more and more part of my daily life. It’s harder to make friends. It’s harder to find situations that I enjoy being in.”

“I have two or three friends that I have known since we were all teenagers. And other than that, if my wife weren’t around, I would be hard-pressed to have close friends other than those from a long time ago.”

The episode entitled, “Guys, We Have a Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men” Is a worthwhile dive into the topic. Loneliness is tied to a dramatic rise in suicide among men aged 50-54, even though, overall, suicide rates have gone down in the U.S. The podcast also includes some hopeful conversations with men who are trying to find solutions.

Loneliness is not limited to men, of course. One the ironies of our time is that the ability to be connected to other people 24/7, via a number of devices and platforms, has not led to an increase in intimacy – in fact, it may have the opposite effect. In a survey of nearly 28,000 college students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association last year, more than 60 percent said that they had “felt very lonely” in the previous 12 months.

Tonight Christians remember the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples before the crucifixion. Surrounded by the twelve he chose as his companions, he knew that one of them was going to betray him. After supper, they spent the night in the Garden of Gethsemane. He begged his friends to stay awake with him, but none of them could – or did – not even the three with whom he was closest. Jesus in the Garden on Thursday night is a very human Jesus. He experiences loneliness, betrayal, fear; he feels he has been abandoned by his friends and even, perhaps, by God. In “Jesus Christ Superstar,” we hear him say, “Will no one stay awake with me? Peter, John, James?”

Even Jesus experienced loneliness. Tonight we empathize with him. And we realize that, because Jesus experienced loneliness, God knows what loneliness is like. And so, even in our loneliness, we are not alone.

On Maundy Thursday, we remember the human emotions Jesus experienced the last days of his earthly life. We empathize with them, with him. We know what it feels like to wonder about the loyalty of our friends. We know what isolation and abandonment and fear feel like. God doesn’t take away those difficult experiences, but God is with us in them – it is good news.

The story of the incarnation – God becoming flesh – is a story that embodies good news. The incarnation bridges the divide between God and humanity. When God chooses to walk on this earth as a human being, experiencing all human emotions, God finds a deeply personal way to connect with us. Because of the incarnation, God knows what our lives are like. Whether we are deeply joyful, or confused, or frightened, we are not alone.

I treasure and celebrate a personal memory every Maundy Thursday. It was on a Maundy Thursday evening, in the First Christian Church in Pittsburg, Kansas, that I was baptized. After me and my pastor’s class classmates were immersed, we changed clothes and emerged into the sanctuary, feeling excited, hair still damp, and received communion for the first time.

Like everyone else, I have experienced loneliness in my life. But I have also experienced communion and community as part of the body of Christ. I have been a part of many different congregations since that time. In each of them I have found friends and deep bonds that have sustained me and enriched me. This holy week, as we relive the events of Jesus’ life – the excruciating lows and the miraculous highs – we are grateful for the ties that bind us to one another, thanks to the God who chose to enter this world as a fully-feeling human being.

 

When Cruelty Abounds…

“There is nothing that one human being will not do to another.” I heard Carolyn Forché read those words in the early 80’s when she visited Vanderbilt University, and I have never forgotten them. The actual line, from her poem, “The Visitor”, is this: “There is nothing one man will not do to another.” Today, we might also say, with horror and sadness, “There is nothing one man will not say about another…” or “there is nothing one human being will not say about another person’s country.”

President Trump’s words come, ironically, on the week of Martin Luther King Day. My sermon for Sunday is based upon Galatians 3:26-29: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female”…how shall we paraphrase that for this week? “There is neither disparaged country (for I refuse to use the word) nor privileged country”. We are all created in God’s image. We are all beloved children of God.

On the way home from a conference yesterday, I read a book a parishioner loaned me. A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea tells the story of Doaa Al Zamel, a young woman who was forced to leave her beloved homeland of Syria when the situation became too dangerous. She and her family tried to stay. But when there was no longer food, when her father’s place of employment was bombed, when their lives were threatened numerous times, they finally found a way to escape to Egypt, where they were at first welcomed. Shortly after they arrived, though, the political situation there shifted and Doaa’s family and many other Syrian refugees were barely able to survive.

The youngest member of the family, Doaa’s brother Hamudi, was nine years old when the family arrived in Egypt. As children often do, he adjusted easily to a new school in a new country. But after the Morsi government was ousted, the Egyptian kids who used to be Hamudi’s friends started to bully him. Next, the school announced they would no longer admit Syrian children. The Syrian parents protested so vehemently that the school relented, but the Syrian students were no longer allowed to sit at desks and had to sit on the floor. Finally one day, a menacing-looking man on a moped pulled up in the square outside the hotel where Doaa’s family was staying and began shouting, at the top of his lungs, “If any of you parents send your children to our schools, they will be returned back to you cut into pieces.” He shouted this threat over and over. And so Hamudi, a once bright and happy child, an eager student, spent the rest of his days in Egypt sulking at home. Is there anything one human being will not do to another?

1485410922143Doaa and her fiance decide to pay a smuggler to get them out of Egypt and into Europe. Every refugee in their situation did the same thing: scrape together everything they could to have enough money to pay the smuggler, then wait for word, then watch as the smugglers steal from them, beat them, move them from one inadequate boat to another. Doaa and her group were nineteen hours from Italy, their destination, and starting to relax and think they had made it when a double-decker fishing boat approached their boat at full speed. Doaa could see about ten men on board, all looking at them with hatred. “You dogs,” they shouted to the refugee boat. “Where do you think you’re going? You should have stayed in your own country.” Then these men began hurling planks of wood at the passengers on the refugee boat while the fishing boat sped toward them, intending to collide at full speed and “send these filthy dogs to the bottom of the sea.” Is there anything one human being won’t say to another?

The cruelty is almost unimaginable.

Yet Doaa survives. I won’t ruin the book for you, because I hope you read it; her tale of courage and resilience is riveting. And she is assisted along the way by many kind people, including a family who takes her in temporarily in Greece, doctors who help her heal physically, and many people associated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). lujrpibaMelissa Fleming, who works for UNHCR, is the author of the book. Because of Sweden’s generous policies and people, Doaa and her family have a new homeland.

I’m left with renewed empathy for the plight of refugees, and also this. The words we say matter. The way we extend ourselves to offer kindness – it matters, too. If you are someone who has been belittled by words or acts of cruelty, kindness helps you maintain your hope, your faith in humanity. What can each of us do for our brothers and sisters who are suffering? What words can we say?  When cruelty is abounding, kindness will have to abound all the more.