When I Am Among The Trees

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After a month of Advent festivities, church responsibilities and family expectations, I once again found myself earning for solitude. After a month of news of one tragic event after another, I found myself aching for silence. Sometimes nothing seems easy.  Living in community, whether that be our family, our religious organization or our global community, isn’t easy.  Sometimes we have to get away. We have to put our feet on the earth and marvel at the formation of a tree, or the deer in the woods, or the carving of a rock and be reminded that really life is very simple and that we make things so much more difficult than they need to be.   

I told my family for a Christmas present I would like to go for a hike in the woods. I wanted to sink my boots deep into the snow, to feel the cold air on my cheeks, to hear the silence of the woods, sleeping and dormant. I wanted to be among the trees.  So on Christmas Day, we bundled up and went out for a hike.

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When I Am Among The Trees,  from her book “Thirst” by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off each such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves,
and call out, “Stay a while.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say, “and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”

Dialogue cannot…

Dialogue cannot exist in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself…. If I do not love the world–if I do not love life–if I do not love people–I cannot enter into dialogue.

-Paulo Freire

Just The Way You Are

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There is a quote from the Mr. Rogers that has gone viral. It’s a quote that reminds us and children that even though scary things happen, there are a lot of people in the world who also do good. Mr. Rogers has always been my hero. His calm, an assuming humility, his commitment to children and the greater good and his ability to join children in their wonder are all qualities I love about him. I also felt like he knew me, like he was talking directly to me, that he really did like me “just as I was.”

Mr Rogers spoke to adults as if they were children and children as if they were adults. He gave them the same amount of respect and knew that essentially we all need the same caring attention. We are all children at heart.

Mr Rogers asked us every week if we would be his neighbor. Jesus admonishes us that the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbor. Every week Fred Rogers, Presbyterian minister, preached the great commandment. He preached it over and over again. Have we learned the lesson yet?

Mr. Rogers never stopped affirming people. He was never fake or phony in his affirmation. You knew his words were genuine. He let people know they were special, and he meant it.

Mr. Rogers was a champion for children. He believed they deserved respect, care, love and honesty. He treated all children with dignity. He welcomed them into his home and invited them to explore.

Mr. Rogers understood that children need ritual and stability. He switched from jacket to sweater, from dress shoes to gym shoes, and fed his fish every week, not because he lacked creativity, but because he understood the comfort of routine and predictability. In the same way we know in our worship service the Prayer of Confession follow the Call to Worship. Our rituals tell us we are home.

Mr. Rogers knew we need creativity and imagination. The Land of Make Believe, was always my favorite part of his show. It was the take home message of his sermon.  I loved Daniel and King Friday. I loved the permission to go to the Land of Make Believe. I think we need to give ourselves permission to use our imagination and go to the land and ponder and create.

Here is his Benediction.  He always blessed us before he walked out the door. Promising us that he would be back with a new idea, or two:

Thank you Mr. Rogers, for being our neighbor. It’s time his congregation of viewers, who heard him as children now adults to go teach what we learned from him. We are the caring people who can do the work for the world.

Close your eyes… who has made a difference in your life?  Go tell them thank you and be that person for someone else.

Will you be my neighbor?

Peace

Things Like That Don’t Happen In Our Town

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This is the phrase I keep hearing. “Things like that don’t happen in our town.”

Our community is still reeling from the recent news that the bodies of two little girls who were abducted this past July, were finally found in a woods in a neighboring county. Things like this don’t happen in our town.

As a nation we are finding enough oxygen to inhale the news of the mass killing of little children and teachers in Connecticut, and we hear over and over again, “things like this don’t happen in our town.”

Yesterday 10 little girls ages 10 and 11 were killed in Afghanistan carrying firewood. I have no doubt that community laments, “things like this should not happen in our town!”

We all want to live in communities that are safe and lovely and full of promise. What are we to do with when the facade of that image is broken and we are left facing the truth?

Truly we have witnessed unspeakable sadness and feelings of disillusionment in the past two weeks. But we also have witnessed tremendous acts of resolve and compassion to bring about justice to our broken world.

The fifth century African bishop Augustine once said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Oh, how we need such hope…and anger…and courage today! We have to have enough hope that we can change the world, enough anger in the way things are now, and enough courage to make a difference.

The hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” speaks to the hope for a ransomed captive Israel. It tells of time when people were hopeless for the world they were living. It’s a beautiful and haunting tune, that leaves with a space in our heart that Jesus is meant to fill. The space that remains empty for many parents today, the space that will be filled only with tears and heartache and horror. Unless the world can help fill that space with something else.

We can fill that space. We can bring hope to the hopeless. We can be Christlike to others. We can fill the space of despair with the space of hope. How? You fill the space of despair when you look at a social problem like world hunger or gun violence or greed and you volunteer, or serve a meal, or give a donation, or become politically active and you say with resolve, no more. You fill the space of anger when you love people who cause you pain and you don’t return their hatred with hatred but rather you love them anyway.

To keep Advent is to keep from losing hope, for ourselves or for the sake of others, even when all seems hopeless. It is to plead with God even when God seems hidden. It is to do the right thing even without promise of reward. It is to have courage even in the face of overwhelming odds. It is to live fully even in the valley of the shadow of death. It is to watch without losing hope, even when we wonder where in this moment of hell, is God?

This morning, like millions of other parents, I made lunches for my kids, made sure they took their vitamins, packed hats and mittens to keep them warm, made sure they ate a good breakfast and had on clean socks and brushed teeth and I hugged them tight and told them I loved them.

This morning I am different. This morning I am angry. Angry that the truth is the world is not as safe as I want it to be. This morning I have courage. Courage to say I will send my kids to school and will not let fear be the dictator of my actions. And I have hope. I have hope that our community and all communities and can do better, and stand strong and say, “Enough!”

Home

It has been said, “that  there is, quite simply, no more emotionally evocative, powerful, or important idea than home,” and we will all, in some way,  over the next four weeks, go home—as we carefully rehearse customs precious in our families, as we bake the cookies, decorate the tree, we create home.

How do you know when you are home?   In college I knew I was home when I could walk to a kitchen, as opposed to a cafeteria and open refrigerator full of food.  In seminary as I commuted by train every week to Chicago, I knew I was home when I was in my own bed.  As a child, I knew I was home, when everybody in my family was also home. Food, shelter and family from a physical needs perspective are indicators of how you know you  are home.  But how do you know when your soul, your spirit is at home?  That is a very different question.  You can be at home and not really feel at home.

I recently read a wonderful novel by Iowa author Marillyn Robinson, entitled Home.  The reader quickly realizes that this story is an allegory to the Prodigal Son.

The story is about two adult children Glory and Jack, who return home under different circumstances. When the story opens, Glory, the youngest of eight children, has returned to Gilead to nurse her ailing father. In her time away she suffered the disillusionment of a false love affair, but being home is a trial for her. “I hate this town,” she says. “Because it reminds me of when I was happy.”

Soon after her return, a letter arrives from Jack expressing his desire to come home. He’s been gone 20 years. Ten years earlier he missed his mother’s funeral. Glory fears that once again Jack will disappoint their father.  As a teenager, Jack impregnated a farm girl and had a daughter who died before her fourth birthday. His indifference to this tragedy shocked and bereaved his family. He now has a son by a black woman whom he met during his stay in St. Louis. His pain that he cannot make a life with the mother of his child becomes an important undercurrent in the story, reminding us of what our society looked like, mid-20th century, in the years of Rosa Parks and Emmett Till.

As the story is woven, the reader sees how broken Jack is by this inequity and by countless other sorrows and doubts. Here is a man who doesn’t know how to live in the world, torn as he is between belief and unbelief.

After a troubling incident with Jack, Glory worries, “Her father and brother were both laid low by grief — and she had nothing better to offer them than chicken and dumplings.” Then she recalls her mother filling the house with fragrant smells of food, restoring harmony when discord threatened. “It would mean this house has a soul that loves us all, no matter what,” thinks Glory.

Robinson uses her considerable talents to explain her religious belief that love is neither earned nor deserved.

That’s what it means when your soul is at home. Your soul is at home when it is at a place where you are loved and accepted no matter what.  The tragedy in this story is that Jack is never able to accept that he is loved unconditionally. He wants to believe it, but he just can’t and so for him home is always a place of exile.

Advent always begins in a place of exile, and the call to come home.   You understand that home is not the place where your clothes are kept and books are stored.  Home is how close you are to Christ.  If you are with Christ, no matter where you are, you are home.  So are you going home for Christmas?    How will you know when you have arrived?

You will be home when the power of Christ is in you and you are Christ like to others. It is to extend grace to them. To love them, not for what they do, but as they are.  The home we long for and belong to is  finally where Christ is.  And Christ exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal way through the world in search of it.

Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.

Who is your neighbor?

My friend, Kate Hall wrote a tribute seen below,  in memory of her 97-year-old neighbor and our parishioner.

It got me thinking about neighbors, and the loss of what it means to be a neighbor.

When I was little girl we lived across the street from an elderly man named John Newnan. John lived in a little brick house with a red door. He was a retired professional jazz drummer. He had an eclectic collection of drums and percussion instruments in his basement. He smelled like coffee and cigarettes. He always wore soft sweaters and plaid shirts. He had yellow canaries.

Every time he paid us a visit he always brought Hostess Ding Dongs. I think it was the only time I was allowed to eat Ding Dongs – was when John came over. Mom would make a pot of coffee and I would sit next John and lick out the center and then eat the chocolate, while he and my mom talked about politics.

I had no idea what they were talking about.

It didn’t matter. When John was at our house, I felt like I was home.

He was our neighbor.  He died over 30 years ago.  But he is still with me.  He is  still my neighbor.

Here is Kate’s tribute:

Driveway Moments on December 9, 2012

My sweet neighbor Wayne passed away yesterday. He was ninety-seven years young and he taught me so much in the twelve years of being his neighbor. He was frugal (to the tenth power), a child of the Great Depression who understood the value of hard work and being a good steward. When his peers were slowing down he could be found in his kitchen putting up thirty quarts of tomatoes for the winter. This fall he tracked down an old family recipe for apple butter and promptly made it and shared it with his friends and neighbors. His wife passed away when he was eighty-nine and I remember asking him how he was doing and his reply was, ” Well, sometimes the walls feel like they’re closing in on me; especially when I watch the shows we liked to watch on TV, so, I’ll let myself feel sad for a while but then I get up and do something or change the channel and watch a good old movie.”

Wayne and I had so many driveway moments. I’d be in our garage refinishing furniture or out weeding my garden and he’d sidle over and start chatting. You name the topic, we covered it. Old memories, currents events, politics (his choice—we were on opposite sides and I eventually had to tell him we’d have to leave that alone) his children, my children who he doted on like his own grandkids, gardening,etc. He was ever-curious about life. I remember the times he and I went out to a local farm to harvest strawberries. The farmer gave us boxes and indicated where we could pick. I joked that maybe we should have a contest of who could pick the most berries. Later he laughed with glee when the farmer weighed our boxes and it was clear who the winner was!

I could go on and on about this wonderful old gent but I’ll sum it up and say this: This neighbor’s friendship was a blessing and gift. He taught me countless things about growing old gracefully and embracing life with gusto. I will try to honor this gift by passing it along.

Expectations

In the Charles Schultz cartoon Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown, Sally asks Charlie Brown to write out her Christmas list.   She asks Santa for an itemized list and says if he can’t come through then just $10’s and $20’s would suffice.  She says, “all I want is my fair share,all I want is what I have coming to me.”    Through this little scene Schultz offers a great commentary on what our expectations are during this season.  We all expect to receive our fair share.  We feel we are owed something.

We all have expectations of how we feel should be treated and what we deserve.  We are told repeatedly that we should expect only the best from companies, schools and organizations.

I am wondering how our expectations impact our communities.  How do the expectations we have on our families, impact how our families interact, communicate and approach one another?  How do the expectations we have on our congregations impact the way we worship, serve and give?  How do the expectations we have on our schools and local government impact how our teachers teach and elected officials govern?  What responsibility do we have for the expectations we place on all of these entities, and how do we measure if our expectations are reasonable?

Jesus had expectations of his community.  He expected his disciples to get up and follow him, and go out and make other disciples.  He expected them to take very little with them and want very little in return.  Was this a fair expectation?

He expected the Chief Priests, Scribes and Pharisees to change their ways, to be less selfish, to sit with the sick and poor.  He expected them to take responsibility for their position of power. Was this a fair expectation?

Never mind the expectations on Mary and Joseph! 

If we want our communities, family, church, or places of work etc. to be viable, healthy places we have to examine two issues – 1. What do I expect of myself as part of this community? 2. What do I expect from others?  And then ask if those expectations are reasonable.

And if our expectations are reasonable then we must be certain they covered in grace.  If our expectations are not surrounded in grace, then our expectations become greed. 

Thanks for reading. Peace.

 

Reference Page – Good Books on Community, Leadership and Family – Have a recommendation? Please share!

Books on Community and Leadership

* indicates my favorite.

Community, The Structure of Belonging,  Peter Block *

Living into Community, Christine Pohl *

Paradoxes of Group of Life, Kenwyn Smith

Managing Transitions, William Bridges

Fashion Me a People, by Maria Harris

Difficult Conversations,                                                                                                      Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Katie Day

People of a Compassionate God, Janet Fishburn

Leadership without Easy Answers. Heifetz

Making Room, Christine Pohl*

What are Going to Do with your Life? Thomas Friedman*

Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Thomas Friedman*

Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni*

Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni*

Getting Naked, Patrick Lencioni*

Resonant Leadership, Boyatzis*

Family

Family Evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development, Kerr and Bowen *

Generation to Generation: Thomas Friedman*

Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: Seven basic skills for turning conflict into cooperation: Becky A. Bailey

From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate: Don S. Browning

10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting, Mimi Doe

Parenting as a Spiritual journey: Rabby Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer

Spaghetti Dinners

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I used to think that a seriously spiritual person only prayed on mountain tops, or by the sea, or in monasteries. I used to think that in order to be a deeply spiritual person I would need to leave the world behind and enter the peaceful quiet world of some other place. I used to think that in order to have prayer time I would need lots of space and lots of quiet. I used to think I knew something about God and spirituality and life.
Now I know better. Now I am a mother.

It was mid February 2007, on a dark and cold Ash Wednesday in Iowa. It was my first Ash Wednesday as the pastor in a new church. I was just learning people’s names and starting to feel less like a stranger in a new land. Meanwhile, three children were at home: five months old, three years old and five years old. It was spaghetti night. I ran upstairs before eating and got ready for the service, squeezing back in to my normal clothes for the first time in ten months. I ran back down stairs, feeding the baby while sitting down to eat. What happened in the next fifteen minutes is a diminished memory. What I do remember is standing at the backdoor to say “good-bye” with the two older children crying, “don’t go mama!” My husband holding the baby and spaghetti all over the walls and on the floor. With minutes before I had to be at church, I looked down to find red spaghetti sauce splattered across my white sweater and in my hair. I shut the door and stepped into the cold, February night air. I got into the van and started to cry and pray. I cried and prayed all the way to church. “Dear God, this is impossible. I can’t do this. I am insufficient. I don’t have it in me. This is too hard.”

I got into church made it to the bathroom and attempted to get the spaghetti sauce out of my hair. I made it to my office and said a prayer of thanksgiving that I could hide all of the messiness of my life with the salvation of a black robe, and I sat down to read through the service one more time. The service began with the story of Jesus being in the wilderness for 40 days where he was tempted by the devil. The wilderness, that place that we feel the most separate from God, the most on our own. Jesus, who never needed to go there, went there because that’s where he knew he would find us. It’s certainly where he knew he would find me.

After the sermon, it was time for the imposition of ashes. This act is probably one of the most intimate and pastoral experiences a pastor can have with her parishioners. One by one people came forward, people who have now died came forward and I told them they were dust and to dust they shall return. Mothers and fathers came forward and brought their children, and parents heard it be told that their children were dust and their children heard that their parents were dust, and people with cancer came forward, and people who survived open heart surgeries came forward, one by one people came forward and as ashes were etched on their foreheads, tears flowed down my face as I gave thanks to God for the shear honor and privilege of reminding them that each of them was loved and known not only in this life time, but in the life yet to come.

And then a colleague came forward and asked if he could impose ashes on me, remind me of my humanness my need to know the love of God, and I smiled to myself thinking about how underneath this priestly disguise was spaghetti sauce and baby throw up and I said “yes,” and he said to me, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Jesus said, “As the father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15: 12).