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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.

Facing Our Fears…Together

Dear Members and Friends of the Avon Lake United Church of Christ,

Next month, during Advent and Christmas, we will read some of the passages from Luke that are most familiar to us. We will read of the angel visiting Mary and telling her she is pregnant, reassuring her by saying, “Do not be afraid.” One chapter later, the angel visits the shepherds with a brilliance in the night sky and says to them, “Do not be afraid.” It is a message we find throughout the Bible. Almost every time God appears to someone, that appearance is accompanied by those words, “Fear not.”

One of the most memorable books I have read this year is one entitled, My Age of Anxiety (click here for book review). It is expertly written and researched; most affecting is the fact that it is written by someone who suffers from anxiety himself. He is willing to share his most vulnerable moments. If you haven’t experienced anxiety yourself, reading this book will help you empathize with those who do – estimated to be 18% of all Americans, a percentage that is growing.

We live in anxious times. My counselor friends tell me people are calling them in record numbers. Several young people in our church describe themselves as depressed and suicidal.

I woke up in the middle of the night, early Monday morning, with my heart beating so fast I didn’t think I would be able to go back to sleep. I had been dreaming (nightmaring?) about the church shooting in Texas.

I am not an expert on anxiety, I am not an expert on gun policy, but I can comment with some authority on the spiritual state of members of our church family. And I can tell you that the violence in our nation is taking a toll on our souls. The frequency of mass shootings creates different feelings in different people, from numbness to panic; we all feel more edgy. It is harder to stay in the moment, harder to focus on all of our reasons for gratitude. In other words, it is more difficult to do all of the things we know are good for our spiritual health.

Because it is therapeutic to have something to do, let me suggest some action steps:

  1. Consider ways we can talk about the issue of gun violence with those with whom we disagree politically. One side blaming the other isn’t working. We need to find common ground. No one wants concert venues, churches and schools to become killing fields. Let us work tirelessly until we find political leaders who will engage in finding a solution.
  2. Join our church’s Safety Response Team. Email C.J. Jasany for more information: buddyonthelake@yahoo.com. Our initial crisis response plan was approved at our January annual meeting. Volunteer training is now underway.
  3. Meditate. Take a hike, look at the leaves, watch the squirrels and the deer. Listen to music and podcasts that lift your spirit. Read books and watch movies/TV that enrich you, make you laugh, and remind you of humanity at its best. Nourish your soul.
  4. Be the church. Support the food drive. Make a doorstep dinner  (click here to contact Cheryl Updegraff). Volunteer to rock babies in our nursery (contact beau@avonlakeucc.org). Invite a friend or neighbor to worship. Sign up to host a coffee hour. We need one another. The world needs us and the good news that we are called to embody and proclaim.

I John 4:18 tells us, “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out all fear.” Fear and love cannot co-exist within us. We are called to be people of love. We face our fears together, with God in us, around us, and beside us.

We need to band together and say, “This is not ok.  We are not going to accept this level of violence and anxiety as the new normal.  This is not the way God intends us to live.”

I look forward to worshiping with you this Sunday.

 

 

Winning and Losing

It was a first for me, in 34 years of ministry. The fire alarm went off about five minutes into worship. And then it went off again, about five minutes later, mid-baptism. We evacuated the building…everyone was calm…I told people we would re-convene outside and wait to see what the fire chief had to say. It was fairly clear that we were having an alarm system malfunction and not a real fire, but it was going to take the firefighters a while to figure it all out, so we cancelled worship.

I may have appeared cool and collected on the outside, but my mind was going a mile a minute. Mostly, I was saying to myself, “This can’t be happening…we can’t cancel worship…it’s Music Sunday. Our choirs have prepared, the music is going to be gorgeous, and we planned the service so carefully.” I checked in with the fire chief once more, and then the grandmother of the children who were to be baptized found me on the front lawn. “Kelly, can you finish the baptism?” Sure! I filled a bowl with water, our sound board technician appeared to hold my book, I began the liturgy and when I finished, I heard music. The choir had gathered around the baptism family and the song began, “I was there to hear your borning cry…I’ll be there when you are old…” It was one of those magical moments.

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But as people dispersed and the building emptied, I felt the loss of what we had missed, the loss of the day’s carefully-planned and well-rehearsed worship experience, the music I’d been looking forward to, the prayer updates I wanted to share with the church family.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I gained a full sense of perspective. I have colleagues who serve churches where there have been real fires, devastating fires. Our building is intact, no one was injured. I still sting a little from the loss of a precious Sunday, but I’m aware that there is much reason for thankfulness. The loss was nothing compared to what it might have been.

Still, winning is more fun than losing.

Last night, our beloved Cleveland Cavaliers lost the NBA championship. All of us in the Cleveland area remember last year, and how fun it was to win. I don’t know that there has ever been a city more appreciative of a win or a team than Clevelanders were last June. But again, perspective is important.

The day before the NBA finals began, LeBron James’ California home was vandalized; someone painted a racial slur on the home’s gate. James handled the incident like a winner. He was the class act that we have known him so often to be. He was first concerned about his family’s safety, then he commented that perhaps if someone like him could be the victim of a hate crime, it will further the necessary conversation about race in America. From something that looks like such a loss, something good can come. In one interview, he said, “I’m at a point in my life where my priorities are in place and basketball comes second to my family. It actually comes after me continuing to be a role model to the youth and focusing on what I can do with my foundation.” LeBron James is a winner in my book.

Anytime we can remember the things that matter most, we win. Anytime we can act and respond in love, and remember that we are loved, we win.

“Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:57)

13 Reasons Why

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“The way we treat each other and look out for each other.  It has to get better.”

This past Saturday I finished watching the Netflix series, “Thirteen Reasons Why.”  Watching 13 hours of television in a relatively short time span was a major commitment for me.  (I’m not bragging about how virtuously I spend my free time – I waste plenty of time – just not usually in front of the TV!)  But I had heard so much about this series I felt compelled to watch it and finish it.

“Thirteen Reasons Why”, based on the book of the same title, has young adults as its main characters and its target audience.  The series is about a high school student named Hannah Baker who decides to commit suicide after experiencing bullying and sexual assault from several classmates.  She leaves behind 13 cassette tapes, each one telling the story of a friend or acquaintance who (in her words) could have done more to help her.

Should parents watch “Thirteen Reasons Why?”  I strongly urge them to do so.  Yes, it is fiction, but students say that there are many similarities between the fictional Liberty High and the culture in many real high schools.  It is not easy to watch.  It graphically portrays drinking, bullying and rape as well as suicide.

I agree with the wisdom of these two articles (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/13-reasons-why-parents-should-watch-the-netflix-series_us_5907a3c8e4b05279d4edbee1, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/panic-life/201705/13-reasons-why-you-should-watch-13-reasons-why) – I would not recommend the show to students, especially younger high school students, those who might be triggered by any of the afore-mentioned topics, or those watching without parental support.  The reality is that many students binge-watched the 13 episodes before many parents had even heard of it.  While the topics are still fresh, parents can catch up and take advantage of the opportunity to have conversation about high school culture today and the way individual students respond to it.

The male protagonist is a high school student named Clay Jensen.  Wise beyond his years, Clay often seems to be one of the more mature characters, almost a voice of moral authority.  In the last episode, Clay confronts the high school guidance counselor, claiming that he was ineffective in preventing Hannah’s suicide.  Clay says to the counselor, “It has to get better.  The way we treat each other and look out for each other.  It has to get better somehow.”

As a church leader, I couldn’t help but wonder how the main characters would have been different if any of them had been active in a church youth group.  Would any of them have had second thoughts about participating in such vicious, destructive behavior?  Might Hannah have had someone else to turn to, other than the school guidance counselor?

The series has been criticized, especially for the suicide scene, which some professionals fear could produce “copycat” behavior in teens.  I understand that worry, and I don’t disagree with it, but the fact is, the series is out there, and young people are watching it.  So I encourage parents to watch it and talk to their teenage sons and daughters about it.

I didn’t like the atmosphere at Liberty High, and I found the show painful to watch at times, but I’m glad I watched “Thirteen Reasons Why.”  I need to know what school is like for the students in our church.  I need to know about cyber-bullying, about shaming and name-calling.  We can’t confront problems if we’re not aware of them.  With eyes wide open, we can now begin to change the culture and treat one another better.

A Lesson in Patience

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Friday was a trying day.  Fridays are my day “off” and I have a routine.  I put a load of laundry in, and then head to the computer to work on my sermon.  Each load of laundry gives me a break, a chance to walk around the house, stretch my legs and my mind, and then it’s back to the computer until the sermon is finished.

This past Friday, I had a good start on the sermon already.  I thought I’d be finished by 12 or 1, and have a chance to get to the gym before packing up for our annual women’s retreat.

Friday started normally.  I glanced at my phone before I headed downstairs about 6.  No urgent emails, everything looked normal.  By the time I got on the computer about an hour later, I had dozens of emails.  Turns out that my email system was hacked into successfully at 6:30 AM, and (after I changed my password), I began responding to…eventually…hundreds of people who received an email from my email address with a suspicious-looking attachment.  Aargh.  So much for the gym.  Finished laundry, finished sermon, picked up bread for communion and headed for the women’s retreat only 15 minutes after my intended departure time.

One of the things I love about living in Cleveland is the ease of traffic, but Friday was an exception.  The trip to the Jesuit Retreat House that usually takes 30 minutes took 90.  An accident created a major back-up.  I arrived at the retreat house an hour after I’d wanted to, only minutes before dinner began.  I tried to hide the stress I was feeling, the frustration that my day hadn’t gone as I’d hoped, the disappointment that I hadn’t been able to work out, the anger at the time wasted and lost.

Our first session began at 7.  We were introduced to the life of Hildegard of Bingen, the most influential woman of the Middle Ages – a writer, preacher, leader, herbalist, musician, composer, and rabble-rouser.  Hildegard was sent to the monastery at age 8, and spent the first 30 years of her life in what is called “an enclosure”, a small room attached to the monastery which she DID NOT LEAVE for 30 years.  With no ability to explore the outer world, she developed, fully, a rich inner life.  She learned everything she could from those who taught her, she absorbed the rhythms of life in a Benedictine monastery, she became a confidante to those outside the monastery walls who would come to her window and tell them her problems.  She began to play and compose music while she was, literally, walled-in.  She developed strong opinions about the way the church was being run; she knew of its corruption and – because she also was a student of scripture – she knew the corruption was unbiblical.

I try to imagine being unable to leave one small room for 30 years, and I cannot.  I can’t imagine 30 days.  Hildegard’s time was different, to be sure; opportunities for women were certainly limited and the monastic option was one of the more attractive.  Still, most people who lived a cloistered life were much less productive than she.  She sowed seeds for every one of those 30 years; growing within her was a curiosity about music, spirituality, the natural world, and ways she could speak her mind.

When she was finally able to leave the small enclosure, all of those seeds took fruit.  She was more widely traveled than any other woman of her time.  She founded two monasteries, wrote prolifically on a wide variety of topics, and corresponded with popes.  Hers is a prototypical example of a life lived well:  talents and time used to the fullest.

After listening to what Hildegard did with her life under acutely difficult circumstances, somehow the angst of my day faded away.  Problems with technology and traffic get on our nerves, but some historical perspective makes our complaints almost laughable.  If I thought my Friday was a day to try one’s patience, well…let’s just say I ended the day full of gratitude for the peace of a retreat center and the lesson of Hildegard’s life.