Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I Think When I Read That Sweet Story of Old

each advent season i begin to think of the beauty of the story of the birth of jesus in matthew’s and luke’s gospels.  i am reminded of the visits of the archangel to mary and joseph, the search for a place to rest when mary and joseph travel to bethlehem, the visit of the angels to the shepherds which leads the shepherds to the manger to worship the child, the travel of the magi to bethlehem and their encounter with herod.  it’s a beautiful story, and i wonder if the insistence that it is literally true—that all the debate about the virgin birth, the questions about who the wisemen were and how to explain their guiding star, the lack of evidence in the historical records of a slaughter of innocents in herod’s attempt to eliminate a potential rival, and all the need for proofs that a literal reading of the story entails—obscures the real meaning of the records of jesus’ birth.

what if we look at the accounts as a way of understanding that there is a God who cares about us collectively and individually?  isn’t that what jesus’ birth, life of ministry, death, and resurrection are all about: that a loving God desires a relationship with us that compels us to love one another?  as i think of the story with its theme of God coming into the world through the person and teachings of jesus, i am not concerned with the question of whether jesus is the embodiment of God or whether each incident reported in the gospels is literally true.  instead, i am looking for the lessons that these stories teach us about who God is and how God relates to all of creation.

here are some things that stand out to me in the stories of jesus’ birth:  first, God is not just a God of an obscure tribe in asia minor, rather God is the God of all creation.  second, God can use the humblest of God’s creation to show us how to embody loving-kindness.  third, “peace on earth” is a central mission that God challenges us to make real as we let go of the need for power and wealth, looking instead to the needs of others.  finally, just as the star shed its light, so we can shine light into the darkness of the world by the way we live our lives.

my prayer for myself and others this season of light is that we set aside the need for proofs and certainties, and look instead in our hearts for the truth that God places there.  May we truly love one another, seeking peace and understanding that transcends ego and self.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Heart Is Warm with Friends I Make

i continue writing about relationships that are recalled each year as we prepare our christmas cards for mailing.  we have dear friends who moved away several years ago to be near their children and granchildren.  even before they moved, we had little time to spend with art and elaine, as both they and us cared for aging parents whose needs took up more and more of our time.  it was not that we chose not to spend time with each other as we had earlier, but rather that once the needs of our parents were met, we had little time left to spend with friends.

we visit each other once or twice a year, and each time we are together, the friendship seems as strong as ever.  our time together is precious, and this couple fills a void in our lives that no other friends have ever filled.  though our lives have taken different paths, our friendship endures; the physical separation and the demands that are made on us in our day-to-day lives have not dimished our love for each other.  when we need  sympathetic shoulders on which to figuratively rest our heads as tragedies and setbacks come in our lives, we turn to art and elaine, knowing that they will listen without judging us or even thinking an “i told you so,” and i hope they feel the same way about us.

i wish that we could spend more time together, that we could enjoy a meal and game of cards once a week as we once did, that we could see each at church and community activites and visit by phone several times a week.  our lives have taken us along different tracks, and so we make the few visits we have count.  each year as i write a note on their christmas card, i think of how much this long-distance relationship means to us and look forward to our next time together.

my prayer today is that each of us have such friendships that stand the test of time, distance, and circumstances.  may we each value these friendships and do what we can to nurture them.  shalom.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

For Hate Is Strong

a few days ago, we listened in horror as the events in connecticut were reported on television.  we were guests in the home of relatives, one of whom watches a 24-hour news source that is, to my mind, quite biased.  in the afternoon one of this news network’s commentators had another of the network’s “stars” as his guest.  this guest on the show is an ordained minister, a former state governor and presidential candidate, and is now a media personality with a nightly talk show on this particular network.

as i listened while passing through the room where the television was playing, i heard him say it was inevitable that we would have such violence in school since “we have systematically removed God from our schools.”  the fact that the shooter was not an employee or student of the school, but was instead someone that had been admitted to the school as a guest, was somehow connected to this “systematic” godlessness in our schools.  never mind that this commentator/“expert” is an advocate of measures that would dismantle the system of pubic education in this country.

as i thought about his statement, i recalled my own education when “God” was supposed to have been present in public schools.  we had our share of fights in school, we had just as many bullies (perhaps more), the artificial “popularity contest” was rampant, and those who were “odd” in any way were ostracized, just as they (we) are now.  where was this “God” then?  certainly, we didn’t have instances of such violence as we saw in connecticut, which appears to have nothing to do with the school in which it took place, except that the school was a convenient place for this person to wreak mass havoc.  had a shopping mall been handy, as it was only a few days ago in oregon, that mall might have been his target.  i suppose the violence in the oregon mall was a result of the “systematic removal of God” from our christmas shopping experiences!

how absurd it is to suggest that God can be removed, systematically or in any other fashion, from any place if one believes in a God who creates and is present in everything.  we are a nation founded on the principle that the state and its institutions, like public schools, should not be agents to advocate any religion, that all government entities should be religion-neutral.

violence anywhere is the result of the evil that lurks in our hearts along with the good.  perhaps we make gun violence easy by our insistence that any gun control laws impinge on our citizens’ right to keep and bear arms, despite the widespread evidence that limiting ownership of non-hunting, non-self defense weapons reduces gun violence of all kinds.  it is unfortunate that we live in a society that seems prone to violence of all sorts, but there is no evidence that religious belief or the lack thereof has a bearing on the propensity for violence.

the antidote for this violence is learning to see others as being worthy of love.  respect for life and placing the desire to do good for others ahead of one’s own desires for meaningless possessions and prestige will counter the savage impulses that permeate american society if we make those more worthy parts of nature a higher priority than the promotion of a ruthless individualism.

my prayer is that we will eschew those qualities that promote ruthlessness, selfishness, and egotism and espouse qualities that flow from loving-kindness.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Unto Your Mission Be True

as my wife and i finished up our christmas cards for this year, she asked me to write a note to our friend clara.  clara was a member of the choir in the church where i was organist before we moved to our present home.  she had a lovely soprano voice and was often called on to sing solos in church.  clara is a lovely person, too--kind to a fault, always thinking of others.  she has not a hint of the egotism that often comes to those who are blessed with exceptional musical talent.

after we moved away, clara retired from her job as an elementary school teacher and her husband retired from his job as a pilot for an oil company.  soon after retiring they moved to be near one of their sons and his family.  we were surprised one afternoon when clara called us.  she and her husband were on a train trip that brought them through our town, and they had a short layover here.  we went down to the train station and brought them out to our house for a short visit.  it was wonderful to catch up on the news of each others' lives, and we were thrilled that they thought of us when they arrived here.

we've not seen clara since then, and the only time we communicate is at christmas.  last year clara's husband died, and we learned of his death through clara's christmas card.  as i wrote her a note in this year's card, i thought of the many happy times of making music together and of pleasant times we spent in her home.  i remembered her many kindnesses and her caring spirit that always thought of how to help others.  i recalled what a wonderful teacher she was and of the many years she worked with the children of our church as the director of the children's choir.  she touched so many lives, as she did mine, and everyone she touched is better off for having known her.

my prayer today is that each of us will have a "clara" in our lives showing us by what it is to be a truly caring, generous person.  may we be filled with gratitude that such people exist and may we emulate the wonderful qualities that they demonstrate.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Love Shall Be Our Token

during this advent season, i am writing about some of the people that have influenced me during my journey.  most of these are friends with whom i didn't continue to communicate frequently once my circumstances in life changed, and i moved on to other jobs or other towns, but at christmas as i wrote notes on christmas cards, i was reminded of their roles in shaping my life.

one of these was "bill."  a friend had asked for me to fill in for her as organist at a church in our town while she took some summer school classes.  during the course of the summer, bill called and asked if he could come by my house and visit with me.  i didn't know bill, and in the course of our phone conversation he introduced himself as the chair of the search committee for an organist in a local church.  we arranged to meet, and he came by my house at the appointed time to interview me and see if i was interested in applying for the job.

i had never worked as a paid permanent musician for a church before, except for a brief period in college, and in that case i knew the job would not last more than a few months because of my status as a student.  as soon as i met bill in person and we began to talk, i knew that he was a person on whom i could depend.  i liked him immediately, and the feeling was mutual.  soon an interview and audition with the full committee was arranged, and bill's encouragement gave me the confidence i needed to favorably impress the other committee members.

within a few days, the job was offered to me, and i excitedly accepted.  bill and his wife, both of whom sang in the choir, became close friends of my wife and me, as did their best friends, a couple who were also members of the choir.  The six of us spent many happy evenings together over food and games of cards.  one of the saddest days of my life was the day bill died, and one of the most difficult services i ever played was his funeral.  his favorite piece was by handel, and i will never forget playing it with tears streaming down my face.  for several years afterward, i could not play that piece because i always cried over losing bill when i played it.

a couple of years later, we moved away, and bill's wife soon went to live with one of her daughters.  for years, we exchanged notes at christmas, and my wife and i always loved hearing from her.  one christmas, though, we got a note from her daughter thanking us for our friendship with her parents and for staying in touch with her mother.  bill's wife had passed away, too, and there would be no more christmas notes exchanged between us.

this advent, i give thanks for bill and sue for believing i could do the job bill was responsible for filling, for being our friends, for their faithful service to our church, and for giving me wonderful memories of two wonderful people who made my life better.  my prayer today is that each of you has wonderful friends like bill and sue and that each of us can be such a friend to others.  shalom.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Beside Us to Guide Us

in the u.s., we have just celebrated thanksgiving day.  when my wife and i returned from spending time with family in the northern part of the state for thanksgiving, we began our weeklong preparation of our home for advent and christmas.  in the course of our decorating we talked about whether to send christmas cards this year.  as we talked, we considered the expense--maybe we should make a charitable donation with the money we would spend on cards; we considered whether we send them out of obligation to folks with whom we never communicate any other time of the year--maybe these are acquaintances that wouldn't even notice that we didn't send them a card; we considered why we send cards at all--maybe we're not all that sincere in the holiday wishes that we express on our cards.

our final decision was to send cards to a smaller list of family and friends this year.  there are several friends to whom we send cards that have had quite an impact on our lives, yet we don't stay in touch except at this season.  how is it that others who have been huge influences for good in my life are out of mind except when i sit down to write them christmas notes?  reflecting on this caused me to think of the multitude of teachers, co-workers, and friends who have helped each of us in our journey.  there is no way that any of us could have frequent communications with everyone who has been an important part of some stage in our lives; there simply aren't enough hours in the day.  accepting that doesn't negate our gratitude for those who have helped us in so many ways, but i am forced to acknowledge that sending cards to remind them, and me, of how our lives are intertwined helps us both keep those links of love and gratitude alive.

as i ruminate over my christmas card list and those distant, yet oh-so-important, helpers, i've determined to dedicate my advent posts to some of them: the man who was instrumental in my securing my first real job as an organist, the cousin-by-marriage who called me every christmas, the choir director who put up with my youthful follies when i first began working in a church, the older choir members who adopted my wife and me as part of their circle of friends.  the list could go on, but this is where i'll begin next week.

my prayer for each of us today and throughout advent is that we'll extend thanksgiving through the season, giving thanks for all those who have been there when we needed them and helped mold us into the persons that we've become.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

To Have and to Hold

ads on tv are often irritating and, on occasion, entertaining.  one has been airing recently that i find disturbing.  it is for an online dating service called "christian mingle."  i have no problem with online dating services in general.  for some people, they provide a much needed opportunity to meet others that would be unlikely, if not impossible, otherwise.  what i find troubling about christian mingle is the suggestion that this service is ordained by God, that since those who participate in it are "christians" that this service has God's blessing and is in fact, in the words of one of the spokesmen on their ad, "God's vehicle" for bringing together two people that God has predestined to be husband and wife.  it is the height of presumption to me that a business would invoke a calvinist God using that business as God's "vehicle" to bring a man and woman together as marriage partners.  God forbid that christian mingle would bring two same sex partners together!

how did men and women find their preordained mates in the past when online dating was not a possibility?  did God somehow arrange for business trips or vacations that would bring these folks together from distant regions or countries?  did God prevent a person from falling in love with someone nearby in order to cause events that would bring distant fore-ordained lovers together?  such a God is very different from the God in which i believe and whom i worship.

i read an article this week about a well-known evangelical preacher whose wife divorced him.  as i read, i thought of christian mingle and the implications of the idea that God has chosen the perfect mate for us.  i wondered if this preacher believed that his former wife was the mate God had chosen.   did he rationalize that because they were divorced that they had misunderstood God's will when they married and that God was now setting things right?  since he believes that he can't remarry while his former wife is still living, does he believe that God intended for him to live most of his life unmarried?  if so, how could he have attained his present status as the pastor of an evangelical mega-church, since it seems to be mandatory that those who lead such churches are married?  is his entire life a misreading of God's will?

i do believe that God loves us and wishes the best for us.  i believe that God is present to help us find a mate and to help us live happy lives with that mate.  i don't believe that there is that one person that God has predestined for us, but rather that through our participation in the spirit of loving-kindness that flows from God we are able to follow our hearts and work with a mate to make marriage work.  sometimes we fail, but that has little to do with "God's will for our lives."  it is more about our own growth or lack thereof.

my prayer today is that we worry less about a fore-ordained "will of God" and think more about how to show the love that is a part of all creation to each person in our lives, including our mate.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

You Have Done It Unto Me

here's one last post about our trip to europe.  we took a train from villach, austria, to vienna--the last leg of a trip that began in rome, took us to venice, and then to villach.  we arrived at the meidling station in vienna around 7:30 in the evening.  as we left the train wondering about finding a taxi to our apartment, another passenger struck up a conversation with the other male member of our foursome.  this passenger was an american who worked in vienna, and she realized that as american tourists we might need some assistance.  though she had to go considerably out of her way, she graciously escorted us toward the taxi stand.  before we got there, she ran into a security guard for the station and explained to him in fluent german that we needed to find a taxi that would hold all four of us and our considerable collection of luggage.  with a smile, he assured her that he would take care of us, and with our thanks she was on her way to catch the u-bahn train to her home.  the security guard led us to another exit down the street a little way from the taxi stand, called to another guard to send the needed taxi down to us from the taxi queue and waited with us as a large station-wagon taxi pulled down to where we waited.  he had a quick conversation with the taxi driver, made certain that the driver understood my less-than-perfect german, helped load our bags in the taxi, and turned to go back to his post, as i yelled our thanks to his departing figure.

as we piled into the taxi, i conversed in halting german with the driver and thought about how fortunate we had been that a fellow american took time out of her long day to help us by delivering us to a kind man who saw that our needs were met.  it would have been easy for this lady to have shrugged and gone on her way home with good wishes directed our way.  it would have been easy for the security guard to have told her that it wasn't his job to find taxis for american tourists with too much luggage.  both of these strangers saw that our needs were met, making our arrival in vienna after a long day of travel much easier than it would have been had we been left to sort our the arrangements on our own.

how often we wish others the best without taking action to make the best a reality for them.  my prayer is that each of us, like these two thoughtful strangers, will remember that in doing kind deeds for our brothers and sisters, it is as if we had done these deeds for jesus.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Make Me a Blessing to Someone Today

when we boarded our austrian railway train in munich bound for bologna and from there to rome, we were full of gratitude to the german student who had gotten us to the platform and to an austrian train employee who had shown us to the correct car.  the car had few empty seats; our reserved seats were the only empty ones that we saw.  unfortunately they were at the opposite end of the car, and we had three large bags, one large backpack, and four small bags to find places to stow.  i plodded through the car with my backpack looking for some place to park the large bags, while the other three members of our group waited with the bags.  as i came to our seats, i slipped my backpack off and located an overhead storage rack for it.  i began to lift my heavy back up over my head, and immediately a young man seated in the area of our seats hopped up and assisted me, smiling all the while.  i thanked him and looked for places for our other bags.  once i found spots, i went back to the far end of the car, and we began the tedious process of lugging all the remaining luggage to the few empty spots available for them.

during this process the train pulled away from the platform.  with all the luggage stowed, we settled into our seats to enjoy the view.  what a view it was!  there were beautiful villages, green fields and forests, mountains, rivers.  for us, scenes of picture-perfect magnificence were constantly before us as we gazed out the train windows, taking photos like mad.  within an hour, we realized that we were starving and the two males in the group set off to look for a dining car.  when we returned to our seats after our successful expedition, our wives were chatting with the young man who had helped me with my backpack.

he was a single fellow from romania who lived in germany.  his parents were still in romania, and he was on his way to meet them at his sister's home in turin.  he told his that they were only able to get together once a year, and he was excited at the prospect of being reunited with his family for an entire week.  he was a seasoned train traveler, and we were grateful for his advice about the food service, train etiquette, and how the italian train system worked.  he excused himself, and we talked about how fortunate we were to have such a knowledgeable and considerate traveling companion.  we decided we'd better go eat, and as we walked into the dining car, there he set having a beer.  he waved as we entered, and we waved back.

after lunch, we returned to our seats and continued our conversation with our new-found friend.  we were concerned about our train connection in bologna, as we had only eight minutes to board our train from bologna to rome.  our train was running a little late, and if the time were not made up, we would have little or no time to get to the train to rome.  he advised us not to be concerned, as it was likely that we would arrive on time; late arrivals were rare for austrian trains, he told us.  if we did miss our train because the incoming train was late, he said that we would have no problem getting an exchange of our seat reservations for a later train.  he explained how to go about locating the platform for our next train, since one doesn't know platform locations in italy until shortly before the train's departure.  he gave us advice on how to manage our luggage through the station, which involved having to lug it downstairs, and then back up another flight of stairs to the new platform.

again, we were amazed that exactly the advisor we needed was seated with us as we worried over the details of getting around in what was for us a foreign environment.  when he left us to catch his train to turin at a stop along the way, we were grateful for his presence and his willingness to help strangers he met along the way.  once more we had our worries eliminated because someone cared about people he had never seen before and would probably never see again.

as i reflect on this experience, i pray that i can be such a person, that i will see the needs of others and address those needs without the desire for reward beyond the satisfaction of having been of service to another.  may we all be the helpers others need so that their anxieties are replaced by the joy of knowing someone, even a complete stranger, cares for them.  shalom

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Just When I Need . . .

my wife and i have just returned from europe, where we spent time in germany, italy, and austria, as well as making one very quick trip into the czech republic.  we traveled with another couple, and i had planned to continue posting to my blog on the tuesdays we were traveling.  our circumstances didn't allow that; sometimes we had little or no internet access, sometimes our apartments didn't allow the privacy i needed, and often i was so tired that i didn't have the energy to stay up late or get up early to write.  as we went along, i thought frequently about the need to write about an experience, so today i will tell about one of the people we met along the way.

it was my job to plann our trip, figuring out all the train connections, securing seat reservations when needed, finding apartments, ordering rail and transit passes, booking tours.  i felt a great responsibility for the success of the trip and found myself worrying about the details as we traveled.  when we needed to travel to munich to catch our train to rome after staying in a small southern bavarian town the first few days of the trip, we were to arrive at the munich station on a small regional train and find our train to rome within only fifteen minutes.  as we approached munich a young man sitting accross the aisle from me asked where we were from, and this led to a conversation about our trip and his studies to complete a degree in psychology.  when he learned i was anxious about finding our train in the large, unfamiliar station, he offered to escort us, as he had a longer wait for his next train and was well acquainted with the munich hauptbahnhof.  what a wonderful sense of relief his offer was!  i had worried throughout the preceding night about catching the train to rome.  it was a popular route, seat reservations were hard to come by and expensive, and missing the train would have made us arrive in rome late in the evening.  as he walked with my wife through the train station, the rest of us trailing behind with our luggage, he told her that he was grateful that he had run into us, because he had a chance to practice his english with americans, a rare opportunity for him, and we were certainly grateful that he was there just when we needed his help.  even with his guidance, we just made our train.  had he not appeared and made his offer, we would never have made the train.

once we settled in to our seats, my wife and i said in the same breath, "that young man was an answer to prayer--an angel placed in our path."  this experience was repeated often on our trip, and in my next post, i'll write about a young man we met on the train to rome.  i often think that we shouldn't ask god to help solve the petty problems of our day to day lives, and i seldom pray for such help.  even without praying for help in making our train connection, i realized that God was present, probably chuckling over my anxious, fretting mind and wondering why i didn't simply trust that when help was needed it would be provided, even without asking for it.

so often this is the case in our lives.  my prayer for each of us this day is that we learn that God is alway present in each moment, always ready to give us the help we need, and sometimes providing help we didn't expect through circumstances that don't go as we had hoped and planned.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Be to the Helpless a Helper Indeed

"intentions" are something i've been thinking about lately.  as i've examined my actions and the reasons for them, i've discovered much of the time i do things because they seem to be the "right" thing to do.  the reason i perform the "right" action isn't as much because i want to help another, but because i feel duty-bound in act in the right way.  i wonder if doing the right thing out of a sense of duty is beneficial to me and if the receiver of my action perceives that i'm not acting out of love, but instead am acting in what i perceive to be my own best interest.  after all, if i fulfill my responsibility to act in the right way, to perform the caring action, aren't i putting "stars in my crown," amassing "good karma" to my own credit?

the right intention is probably as important as the right action.  when i act primarily because it helps me, the receiver of the action is not the one who is the center of the action, but rather the focus is on the doer: me.  i've spent some time praying that my heart would become that of a servant whose focus is on the person being helped, not on the person doing the helping.  perhaps that is why right intention follows immediately after right view in the eight-fold path.  right action comes further along the path and right effort even further along.  if i am to act in true loving-kindness, i must set "self" aside in favor of focusing on the "other" toward whom loving-kindness is directed.

my prayer for myself and for others continues to be that we will all be transformed, becoming true servants, serving others out of love for them, not serving others because it is beneficial for us.  isn't this what jesus was teaching peter when jesus insisted on washing peter's feet over peter's protests?  shalom.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fear Not, Little Flock

a few nights ago, i dreamed that a man was stalking me.  i was terribly afraid of this anonymous man, and as i was in my bathroom preparing for bed, i saw his face in the frosted glass of the bathroom window.  my fear took my breath away, and i could get no words to form in my mouth as i gasped for air.  finally, i was able to say aloud, "go away!"  the man disappeared, and i awoke struggling for breath with my heart racing.  i'm sure that the genesis of this dream was a detective novel i'm reading, and i'm not interested in the psychological meaning of the dream.

what interests me is the relief i felt as i woke more fully from the dream to realize that what i experienced was not real.  how often we live with needless anxieties that interfere with the enjoyment of life.  our fears stalk us as the man did in my dream, and we have but to say "go away" to see those fears disappear, and the calm relief that replaces them reminds how lovely life is.

soon my wife and i will leave on a trip to europe.  i have been frantically planning, worrying over railway timetables, investigating the best way to see the most with the least effort, debating what we will have time to do and what we must leave for another trip.  in all that, my fears that i'm making wrong decisions, my anxieties about getting confirmations of all our reservations have caused me to lose sight of the joy that we can experience as we see new sights and meet new friends.  these worries have overtaken the fun of planning the trip and remembering that even when plans go awry, those unplanned difficulties often present opportunities to have experiences we would otherwise miss.

i forgot for a few days that joy is in the present moment, not in some future that may never come to be.  my prayer for myself and you is that we will be reminded that all is well, even when that doesn't appear to be so, and that all we have is this moment given for our enjoyment.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

So Shall the Wide Earth Seem Our Father's Temple

when i first read of the recording of presidential candidate mitt romney's fund-raiser speech mentioning the 47% of americans he said are government dependent, i was startled that a man who wants to be elected to our highest office would say such a thing.  in a democracy, every person is government dependent, because the electorate is, in effect, the government.  the government is simply a mechanism that allows all of us to pool our money paid to the government as taxes to accomplish larger goals that would be impossible for each of us as individuals.  we are dependent on the government to build our roads and bridges, to defend our liberties, to insure the safety of our foods and medicines, to provide the social safety net that assists the unemployed, the elderly, the homeless, and the poor.  we elect those who make the decisions about how much each person should pay in taxes and how that revenue will be spent.  how, then, is the government some abstraction that has become our enemy in the view of mr. romney and many others?

when president obama said that no one in the u.s. succeeds on his or her own, he was correct.  we all stand on the shoulders of others.  i help build the transportation system that allows the owner of the manufacturing company to deliver the goods to market.  i help pay for the police who safeguard the factory and the firefighters who put out the fire when the factory is burning.  none of us is "self-made."  countless others have played a role in each successful enterprise in this country, and we are all dependent on government to "promote the common good."  our votes determine what that common good is and how it will be promoted.

how easy it is to forget how intertwined our lives are.  as the world shrinks, we are more closely linked with each passing day.  my prayer today is that each of us will remember how dependent we are on one another and that we will say a quiet word of gratitude for all those who are working with us to make this world a better place.  shalom

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

With Freedom's Holy LIght

the nature of religious fundamentalism is much on my mind these days.  when i was growing up, i was part of a christian demonimation that stressed the "priesthood of the believer," that is, the idea that each person can approach God directly, seeking God's leading in matters of faith and practice.  in this denomination there was room for wide divergence of belief, members could express doubts about traditional church teaching, and politics was never discussed as part of church worship.  the central focus of worship was the teachings of jesus and how to live the christian life from day to day.  as i matured, the denomination grew increasingly conservative and politicized.  individual congregations that dared to take such "radical" positions as recognizing the baptisms of other denominations or recognizing that women could be called to pastoral ministry were forced to leave the denomination, and i watched as this expression of the church left me.  as an adult i was forced by my conscience to become part of another denomination that allowed me the freedom to seek my own answers as i believed God was leading me.

i look now at the denomination of my youth and see a church filled with those who blindly follow their leaders, a church peopled by those who've abandoned thinking for themselves in favor of a letting their leaders think for them.  i am frightened.  if this sort of blind following of religious leaders becomes dominant, we will commit many grievous wrongs and do them in the name of religion.  i was interested to read the dalai lama's suggestion that the correct path is to seek a spirituality that is beyond religion, and i think what he is saying is that organized religion often gets in the way of finding the right path.  while i, like many, find being part of a group that is bound together by our common search for the right way to live life to be essential, i cannot abandon thinking for myself and seeking God's leading.  i cannot allow organized religion to dictate the path for me, but it is helpful for me to know that i am part of a group where each individual is also seeking God's leading, knowing that individuals in my group may come to very different conclusions about what that leading is along life's path.  that's ok.  we are all different, we may be at different points along the path, seeing things from differing perspectives, or finding that our answers are different because we are different people.

this line of thinking has colored my thinking as i've watched the mob mentality that has unfolded in the middle east during the past few days.  some have been quick to condemn all muslims for the behavior of these mobs, but my mind has gone to the not-too-distant past in my own country.  i've been reminded of "christian" mobs who massacred mormons as they made their way across our country, of the "christian" who said of the murder of a mormon child that the killing was justified because that child would have grown up to be another adult mormon, of the massacre of members of a westward moving wagon train by mormons masquerading as native americans, of the lynchings of african americans by "christan" mobs.   do such atrocties condemn either christianity or mormonism as religions?  did every christian or every mormon condone these actions?  certainly many muslims took part in the mob actions we've just witnessed and many others supported them, but millions of other muslims felt shame and expressed condemnation for the actions of their fellow believers.  we cannot condemn all muslims for the actions of a few any more than we can condemn all christians or all mormons for the actions of those few in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

my prayer for each of us today is that we seek our spiritual answers thoughtfully, taking wisdom where we find it, and using that wisdom to live lives of lovingkindness.  shalom

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Author of Liberty

as i've observed the current political campaign leading up to the november elections in the us, i've been reminded repeatedly of the american belief in our "exceptionalism."  this idea that we have been given a special blessing and mission from God that sets us apart from every other nation runs deep in the us psyche and has been a part of our national identity for a very long time.  it was widespread even before the formal founding of the country.

i listen to politicians going on about our "exceptionalism," suggesting that those of us who reject the notion are somehow not true "americans."  this belief that we are ordained by God to lead the rest of the world, to impose our national philosophy, to embody the imperialist hegemony that asserts our national right over all other countries' rights is so offensive and insulting to both us citizens and the citizens of other nations.  the assertion of american exceptionalism has come to be entwined with the christian right's set of beliefs about the nature of God and the political philosophy of the american right wing to such an extent that evangelical american christianity and the politics of the republican party have largely merged into one entity.

this is truly frightening to me, because it is leading to intolerance of any other position.  we see in the "tea party" movement an insistence that, since "we" (the tea party) are right, all who disagree must necessarily be wrong.  there can be no middle ground in their view of governance; to compromise or give another point-of-view any credence is to abandon one's principles in their narrow, dogmatic philosophy.  such a view is a prescription for governmental gridlock unless the adherents of the extreme right gain an unchallenged majority in the legislative bodies and courts of the nation.  that this is a possibility is even more frightening than the current situation.

all of us are so much the same, whether we are british, malaysian, saudi, or american; we all aspire to have the freedom to express ourselves and associate freely, to believe and love as we are led, to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  there is no american monopoly of such ideals, and God loves every person of every nation in exactly the same way.  my prayer today is that we americans will come to realize that we've been given no "exceptional" status from on high and that all of us will work together to spread love and compassion, not intolerance and a selfishness that says, "i've got mine--you're on your own."  shalom

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

For Hate Is Strong and Mocks the Song . . .

as i've read reports of the republican national convention, my mind has been occupied with the dangers of religious fundamentalism.  i worry about all those children whose minds are being twisted by the lessons being taught in home schools and in "christian" schools.  one of the blogs i follow, monkey mind (www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/), recently wrote a post entitled, "is teaching kids creationism child abuse?" based on bill nye's recent big think video on youtube, "creationism is not appropriate for children."  this, too, elicited more thought on the arguments against the path that evangelical christianity is taking in our country.  the very fact that "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" have become synonymous tells us much about the perception of christianity in this nation.

what will be the role of those home-schooled and "christian-academy-schooled" children in our political life as they become adults?  will they continue to believe that the biblical account of creation is a scientific account?  will they think that they can use God for their own political-religious purposes as their parents do?  the very idea that one can twist the bible to mean whatever one wishes to prove a predetermined philosophy is so far removed from my idea of what the bible's purpose is that i want to disavow this approach as strongly as i possibly can.

i am always suspicious of those who are convinced that they have the answers to all of life's questions, and the religious and political certitude of the christian right frightens me beyond measure.  the suggestion that their principles are unquestionably correct and that there can therefore be no compromise with those who disagree defies everything upon which this country was founded.  those who subscribe to the christian right's philosophy and methods appropriate God for their own purposes, and i fear that they will lead our nation to a moral precipice from which we will all fall as the nation ignores reason, restraint, and mutual respect.

why are our progressive churches not crying out against this danger?  why are we who are progressive christians not joining forces with other progressives to speak out and to fight these wrongs?  is it because we believe that as champions of tolerance and freedom we will be guilty of the same narrow vision as those we oppose?

my prayer today is that all of us who oppose the idea of religious fundamentalism and right-wing bigotry will stand up for what we believe, seeking common ground with other political and religious points-of-view where we can, but never knuckling under to the bullying of the right in the name of tolerance.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Oh, My Friend, My Friend Indeed

i am writing this post early on saturday morning, though it won't post until the following tuesday. my usual posting day.  yesterday my wife and i celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary.  we are spending a few days staying in a condiminium in the mountains, and tomorrow we will go to spend a few days at the beach.  as i sat here this morning, i thought about how wonderful it is to have a partner who is my best friend.  like all friends, we don't always see eye to eye, we become angry with one another occasionally, there are hurt feelings from time to time, but, like true friends, the friendship continues.  we overlook one another's shortcomings, we learn to deal in love with those annoying quirks and habits, and we know that our lives are so much happier together than they would be apart.  we have learned to be patient with one another and to treat each other with kindness.  we increasingly seek the other's well being along with each one's own well being.  isn't that what love is about?  i think of crossman's words, "but, oh my friend, my friend indeed, who for my need his life did spend," and i wonder if those words don't apply to our day-to-day relationships with others as much as they apply to the ministry and death of jesus.

as i sit her ruminating, i think, too, of the current political campaign.  it seems that more and more the republican side has turned to a narrow path that denies the worth of women, that marginalizes all but the rich and powerful, that blames those who suffer for their own suffering.  a republican county judge in texas has warned people to arm themselves to prepare for the coming civil war that will ensue should president obama be re-elected.  a republican senate candidate has suggested that women who say they have become pregnant as a result of rape may not really have been raped, because he believes that in cases of "legitimate rape" the female body will naturally abort the pregnancy without any medical procedure.  i pray every day that, afer this election,  justice and mercy wil walk together once more in our country, that we will once more look to the common good, and that the needs of our people will be more important than increasing the wealth and power of the few at the top of our economy.

before beginning this post this morning, i read "how to become open to life" in zenhabits.net, one of my favorite blogs.  i was inspired by leo's comments on judging less while accepting more, letting go of the need to set goals that restrict our openness to the opportunities life presents us, and releasing ourselves from the need to control.  if you don't follow leo's blog, i encourage you to do so.

my prayer for each of us this morning is that we treasure the friendships we develop over a lifetime, that we work to bring the kingdom of God to fruition in our daily lives, and that we open ourselves to a life of acceptance and openness.  shalom

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Unresting, Unchanging, and Silent as Light

this morning as i sit to write, i am thinking of change.  our lives are in a constant state of change.  loved ones die, jobs end, friends move, children grow up.  our fortunes increase and decrease.  there is but one permanent fixture in our lives and that is the unending quality of love.  the longer i live, the more i come to see that to embrace love is to enter into a stream that flows forever.  God is that ever-flowing stream, the source of love.  as we come to love more fully and deeply, to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbor as ourselves, we participate with God in the one thing that is permanent.

a part of attaching ourselves to the love that is greater than ourselves is learning to appreciate the gift of each moment.  no moment ever repeats itself, each moment is fleeting, never to be experienced again.  one of the changes i pray for in my life each day is to have the mindfulness to offer each moment to God in thanksgiving for the gift of that moment.  some days i have more success in doing that than others.  some days i rush through my life, jumping from activity to another, striving to finish each task as quickly as possible so i can move on to the next one.  how much i miss when i give in to the impulse to live so mindlessly!

my prayer for each of us this day is that we will slow down and relish each breath, each passing second, remembering the great gift of love that is ours to take and to share.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pure Unbounded Love Thou Art

this morning i've experienced something that is very rare in my life: a quiet morning mostly to myself.  first thing this morning, my wife and i went for a short walk with our dog, parker, came home and ate breakfast, then she decided to take a short nap because she didn't get enough sleep the night before.  i've taken care of a few chores, but mostly i've spent time thinking about a few of the blessings in my life.

first, i'm grateful that i have a wonderful wife with whom to share my life.  we love to work together, to travel together, to eat together, and we find that when we're doing something together, we take pleasure in sharing activities that one or both of us doesn't particularly like because we are together.

second, i'm grateful for my children and their spouses.  both children are kind, generous people who are happy with themselves, their work, and their partners.  they are thoughtful and helpful and a joy to be with, and the same can be said of their mates.

third, i'm grateful for many good friends--friends with whom we can share our lives, friends we can count on whenever we need them, friends that we can confide in when we need to talk frankly without being judged.  some are friends from work, others are friends from church, but all are part of our family who will be there for us no matter what.

finally, i'm grateful that there is a stream of Love which never ends that carries me along life's ups and downs.  that Love reminds me constantly to look for ways to make the lives of others more enjoyable, to be there for those who may need my help, and to always pray for good to come to those i encounter along the way.

my prayer for each of us today is that we pause to give thanks for those in our lives who love us and to give thanks for our own ability to participate in unending Love.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Whoever Would Be Great Among You

for me, one of the most troubling beliefs of orthodox christianity is that of the "atonement."  the belief that God required jesus to be put to death to atone for the sins of all humanity seems incompatible with the loving God that i worship.  a few mornings ago, as i contemplated jesus' ministry and execution, i seemed to be led to a new understanding of its meaning.  when jesus began his ministry, he was aware that his teaching would arouse strong opposition from the rich and powerful.  as he befriended the poor, the powerless, the unclean, those who were seen as traitors to the jewish people, and those who were regarded as infidels, the elite at the opposite end of the social spectrum believed this radical teacher posed a threat to the established order.  jesus' teaching that one could only become great by becoming a servant was contrary to the very foundation of the jewish system that had reached an accomodation with the roman conquerors.

jesus knew that his challenge to this system when he taught that gentiles as well as jews could participate in the kingdom of God, when he taught that women were to be regarded as men's equals, and when he taught that the intentions of the heart were more important than outward signs of religiosity would bring him into direct conflict with the religious leaders who had much to lose if jesus' teachings took hold among the population of palestine.  from the beginning of his ministry, jesus saw where his teachings would lead him, and the religious establishment began plotting against him as soon as they saw his influence spreading among the people.

 jesus' death was not a necessary blood sacrifice so that all people could be forgiven, but it was an indication to his followers that there were more important considerations than the preservation of one's life, since life is fleeting.  he taught that we are like blades of grass that wither and die, but the good we do lives on after us, sending out ripples of love through each life that we touch.  jesus didn't atone for our sins, he gave us an example of the power one life can have if it is lived in love and service.  his brief ministry made him immortal and the good he did continues to influence our lives, making us great by making us servants.

my prayer for each of us this day is that we remember how and why jesus lived and died and that we live the abundant life that he calls us to.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Right Here, Right Now

i haven't written much about riding my bike lately, probably because i don't get to ride every day as i did last summer.  with my early morning practice schedule, it's been too hot most mornings to ride after i get home from practicing.  when i have gotten to ride, as i did this morning, i've tried to simply enjoy the ride--no stories in my head, no planning or wrestling with decisions, just riding, breathing, looking, feeling.  now, from time to time, i've caught myself drifting away from the ride and thinking about the day's activities that are ahead or some other out-of-the-moment distraction, but when that's happened, i've called myself back to the joy of the ride.

how often as i go through the day i find myself missing the experience of the never-to-return moment as i anticipate some future moment that may never come!  when i realize that's happening, i'm trying to stop and say a silent "thank you" to God for the present moment and the activity in which i'm engaged, while pushing aside the mental distraction that keeps me from enjoying the present.  today was an especially hectic day, and i raced through it, thinking constantly that i must finish the present activity so i have time to get on to the next one.  now at the end of the day as i sit and write, i realize that my constant pushing to get to the future kept me from enjoying the day as i might have, and i'm grateful to have stopped to think about the acitivity of writing these words.  finally, i've stopped long enough to relish the moment and the activity that fills it, a sensation i haven't experienced since my early morning bike ride that seems so long ago.  (since my post won't publish until early tomorrow morning, the day i'm describing is "yesterday," obviously.)

as i looked back through last week's post, i realized that much of what i wrote last week was repeated in today's hectic schedule.  like last week, i came to the end of  the day, and everything was ok.  i'm still working on learning the lesson of letting go of the need to control the day and master it.  i'm getting better little by little at taking time to stop and reflect on how to go with the day so that future is not pressing down on me, keeping me from enjoying the present.  instead of waiting until the end of the day to reflect, i'll try to pause throughout the next hectic day to remind myself that the day was given for my enjoyment, not for me to control.

my prayer for myself and for you is that we'll let go of stories about the future and relish the present, giving thanks for the opportunity to experience the here and now without anticipating a future that may never take place.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

To Everything There Is a Season

this week has been a hectic week with many extra meetings and beginning to teach a summer school class, on top of my usual work at church and home. when such busy times occur, i find i have little time to call my own, and i become anxious and depressed. my typical reaction to these feelings is to tell myself that i shouldn't be feeling this way, but i've been trying instead to admit that i have such feelings and, rather than feeling guilty for having feelings that i "shouldn't" have, i've been trying to sort through them and figure why i have such a difficult time dealing with the stress of too much to do and too little time to do it.

as i've begun each day's meditation time, i've admitted these feelings in my prayers and asked God to help me in dealing with them in an honest way that doesn't become guilt-ridden. what i've taken away from these prayer times is a sense that i can let some things go, that for a brief period while i'm teaching my summer school class, it's ok to skip a german or italian study time if need be or to say to my wife, "we'll just have to postpone this chore for a day or two, because i need some time just to sit and be." it's been a relief not to feel the need to be super-husband, super-disciplined, super-always-at-other's-disposal.

my wife has been incredibly patient with me, since i was honest in saying, "there's too much on my plate. help me remove some of it." yesterday was incredibly hectic for both of us, and we returned home at the end of the day exhausted but happy because we had supported each other and laughed at the frantic pace we had shared as we raced through the day. how nice it was that, instead of being snippy with each other and feeling sorry for ourselves as we usually are after such a day, we could end the day in good spirits because we honestly admitted to one another that the day's schedule was demanding, but this pace only lasted for one day and we handled it together.

all through the day, my wife kept asking, "are you ok? is everything going to be alright?" her concern for me lifted my spirits and i could truthfully answer, "yes. we're going to come out at the other end of the day relieved that it's over and proud that we handled the demands on us well."

God has let me know that the time i'm given is sufficient to accomplish the things that need to be accomplished. i don't have to feel guilty that some non-essential tasks may be postponed for a less busy time. perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, "sufficient to the day is the evil thereof" (matthew 6:34). my prayer for each of us this day is that we examine our feelings honestly and without guilt and learn how to prioritize, completing those tasks that are truly important and setting aside the lower priority tasks without a sense of failure. may we understand that taking time to take care of our own needs is often one of those high priority tasks. shalom.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

All Thy Works with Joy . . .

it is my custom while i'm temporarily filling in as organist/choirmaster at my church to go to the church around 6:00 in the morning to practice.  the first thing i do is to sit in one of the pews and spend 30 minutes in prayer and meditation.  the other morning, i happened to run my hand along the top of the pew in front of me.  it was remarkably smooth, and i began to think about all the life in the piece of beautiful oak that was seemingly inanimate.  i know, though, that this wood vibrates with the energy of creation.

as i contemplated the fact that every object is filled with god's creative energy, i thought of the history of this piece of wood.  decades, perhaps centuries ago, a small acorn fell to the ground and was nourished by organic matter from decaying plants and animals.  in this rich environment a tiny tree sprouted, and with continued nourishment from the soil and the rain, it flourished, finally becoming a huge tree.

at the right time, a forester came along and harvested the tree.  perhaps by that time the tree was two or three hundred years old, perhaps it was still healthy, or perhaps it was diseased or damaged by the ravages of a severe storm or by another tree falling against it.  whatever its condition, the tree was harvested and taken to a mill where it was sawed into lumber.

that lumber reached a craftsman, maybe in a church furniture factory or maybe in a small workshop, where is was shaped into parts of a pew.  other skilled workmen or machine operators finished the raw wood of the pew so that it glowed with a shiny finish that sealed it and enhanced the lovely grain.  someone loaded it onto a truck that transported to its present location.

countless worshippers have sat in that pew, looking to the chancel with its communion table and other furniture and to the cross on the wall in the central archway of the chancel.  what a miracle this pew is.  how many hands have gone into making it ready for its present function.  it all began with that tiny acorn and the right soil and moisture conditions that are the gifts of the end of life for countless organisms and the forces set in motion by a benevolent Creator.

i gave a prayer of thanksgiving for all those who had a part in creating something that i had never taken the time to think about until that day.  we are surrounded by such miracles, each pulsing with God's creative energy.  my prayer today is that we stop to think of, and give thanks for, the miracles of continuing creation in which we are blessed to participate.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

We Are One

over the past several days, i have been thinking of the concept of "oneness." i am becoming more intrigued by the idea of reincarnation. the possibility that another was our mother, father, brother, sister, or child in a past life changes how we view others and our relationships to them. does the possibility that the person who treats me unkindly was, in some other life, a close relative cause me to react in a very different way to that unkindness? might i repay unkindness with patience and understanding rather than repaying unkindness with more unkindness?

if we are all one, if "there is neither jew nor gentile, neither slave nor free, [neither] . . . male and female," as st. paul says in galatians 3:28, treating another in the wrong way harms oneself. st. paul goes on to say that we "are all one in christ jesus." in matthew 25:40 jesus says, " inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me." these teachings suggest to me that as a follower of jesus, one must see the unity of all people and in so doing treat others with kindness and respect, just as one should treat oneself with kindness and respect.

the idea that one soul can inhabit many bodies over extended periods of time increases the obligation to extend loving kindness to every person as much as we possibly can. the belief in the power of God to transform something old into something new is a profound one that we see expressed in nature over and over. the caterpillar become the butterfly, the tadpole becomes the frog, the embryo become the new creature, organic matter decays and becomes part of new life. isn't in possible then that God intends for us to see the interconnectedness of all life and wishes us to treat each life with love and respect, since the life of that "other" is intimately connected with our own.

this line of thinking is very foreign to what most christians have been taught to believe. we are focused on the uniqueness of each individual soul and the idea that, once this life is over, the soul is transformed and is either eternally in God's presence or eternally excluded from God's presence. as i age, i increasingly question that line of thinking and am drawn to the possibility that God's mercy will allow us to correct the mistakes we've made in this life and have other chances to "get it right."

my prayers for each of us today is that we'll entertain the possibility that we are indeed one and that we'll treat each other as if that were a fact rather than a mere possibility. shalom.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace

in my last post, i mentioned mark 9:42-50.  this is a passage that should give pause to those who insist that every word in the bible must be taken literally.  certainly, no one would suggest that jesus is advocating chopping off one's hands or feet, plucking out one's eyes, or deliberately drowning oneself.  the passage begins with a verse about "causing one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble."  it would seem that this verse properly belongs in mark 10:13-16, where jesus tells the disciples not to turn away children who have been brought to him for blessing.  the passage (mark 9:38-41) that proceeds the closing section of mark 9 is one in which jesus tells the disciples not to prevent others outside their group who may be healing in jesus' name from claiming the name of jesus.  the connection between the two is tenuous at best.

the closing verses of mark 9 seem to be telling us that things that are not evil in and of themselves may be used for evil if we are not careful.  we fall into habits that are counterproductive or that consume too much of our time; we allow attachments to things that are impermanent to distract us from what is really important; we mistakenly believe that life is ours to control.  perhaps jesus is suggesting that we examine ourselves and get rid of those encumbrances that prevent us from rightfully claiming to be followers of jesus.

jesus concludes by admonishing the disciples to "have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other."  this may be the connection between mark 9:38-41 and mark 9:42-49: jesus may be telling the disciples that their desire to claim jesus as theirs exclusively, to become a closed circle, is offensive; the disciples should have a view that is more inclusive and outward looking, salting society with the flavor of kindness and connectedness that brings peace to all, not just to an inner circle of the most devoted followers.  therefore, they must cast away their selfish claim to jesus by ridding themselves of the figurative hands, feet, and eyes that prevent them from functioning in accord with jesus' teachings.

my prayer for myself and you today is that we constantly examine our lives to remove those things that keep us from living the life of love and acceptance that jesus taught, so that we become the salt that flavors the whole of life, thereby living in "peace with each other."  shalom.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

One Great Fellowship of Love (2)

i am reading mark's gospel once more, this time in small bits, thinking about the short passages i've read for a few moments to seek understanding of the teaching(s) in each reading.  in the past few days, i've been struck by two in particular: mark 3:20-35 and mark 9:42-50.  both of these are passages that  are difficult for me to understand, but as i've prayed and meditated on them, i think perhaps a little light is beginning to dawn. today, i'll address the first of these and write about the other in my next post.

in the first passage, jesus' family has come to "take charge of him."  they believe that he is mentally unstable. he has chosen the life of itinerant teacher and gathered a group of disciples around him, abandoning his home in nazareth and his work as a carpenter.  perhaps jesus had helped to support his family and established a lucrative carpentry business, following in joseph's footsteps.  jesus' response always seemed cruel to me. when he is told that his mother and brothers are there for him, he asks, "who are my mother and brothers?"  he then says that those gathered around him are his family, that all those who do God's will are his "brother, sister, and mother."  it seems to me now that jesus was making a larger point.  he was teaching us that we are all related. his words suggest that, as God's creations, an unhealthy reliance on the ties of blood are an impediment to truly loving others as we love ourselves.

as i thought more along these lines, i was reminded of how much evil has been done because of the overemphasis on family relationships.  we see this played out every day, as related tribes or clans make war on those that are seen as being "the [unrelated] other."  we see this in the ethnic differences that divide us.  we see this as family members scheme for wealth and power, intriguing to elevate one family over another or to become the most powerful member of a family group. jesus saw this in the constant grasping for power in the families that controlled the priesthood and thereby the religious life of the jewish people. he saw that the "elitist" attitude of the religious leaders was falsely teaching his fellow jews that theirs was a superior ethnic group with access to the "true" God.

my prayer for each of us today is that we see each other as father, mother, sister, brother, embracing each other in love as jesus taught so long ago. shalom.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Greatest of These Is Love

a few days ago during my early morning meditation, as i thought about the qualities of love, it struck me that the last quality that st. paul lists in 1 corinthians 13 is "love is eternal." suddenly i saw a connection between the eternal nature of love and the concept of resurrection, that is of the continuation of life after our present bodies fail. if the only permanence is God, this is the supreme characteristic of God: that love is eternal and permanent. as we give love to God, to ourselves, to each other, we participate in the eternal, in life that is unending.

i thought, too, of isaac watts' metrical version of Psalm 90, which begins, "Our God, our help in ages past." the stanzas that came to mind are these:

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the op'ning day.

the verses of the psalm, and watts' poetic interpretation of it, contrast the eternal nature of God with the impermanence of human life and all of creation. the psalmist speaks of the fragility of life, reminding us that countless humans have lived and died, most of them forgotten. even those who are remembered through the ages are like a fading dream, one that barely lingers in the historical consciousness. eventually those mythic figures will be lost to the collective memory. only the love that is God is permanent, in the sense of being unchanging.

"as long as life endures," to borrow another of watts' phrases, our greatest good is to participate in the eternal that is love. in so doing, we share with God the power of eternity. my prayer for myself and for you is that we will love as fully as we can, refraining from hate, greed, and envy, eschewing the quest for riches and power, in favor of experiencing the divine.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Teach Us What We Yet May Be

yesterday my wife and i were riding in a friend's car as we returned from a wedding. we have been friends of this woman and her husband for many years. we knew that their marriage was not a happy one, and, as we rode, she began to tell of us of some of the reasons. we were both surprised to learn that he had taken some actions that had wounded her deeply. though these actions were not "wrong" in and of themselves, they were troubling to her and done in secret. when she confronted him with her knowledge of what he had done, he did not seem to care about how she felt and insisted that she was making a big deal of something that was insignificant. he refused to discuss the matter further with her, and from that point on, their marriage was a sham that they kept up for appearances and for the sake of their children.

her revelation made me wonder if there were things that i had done unbeknownst to my wife that would hurt her if she found out. i suppose that in every relationship there are those "secrets" that, while not evil in and of themselves, would be troubling if they were brought to light. but should there be such hidden acts and habits? after a not-very-restful night, i got out of bed and began my period of prayer and meditation, asking God to show me some answers. the answer i received was that i needed to work for more openness in my own marriage, to become a more caring husband who took every opportunity to assure my wife of my deep and abiding love for her. i asked God to lead me to expose more of my thoughts and actions to my wife, something that is difficult for me because i am at heart a very private person.

i asked God to lead me on a voyage of self-discovery, to help me understand who i am in the deepest core of my being and to help me be that person all the time, not a fragmented person who is one "me" to my wife and family, another "me" to my friends and acquaintances, and still another "me" in my private life and thoughts. this is the transformation that i've sought for so long, the transformation that i believe God has been leading me toward over the past few years as i've written this blog. it took the revelation of our friend about her marital problems to awaken in me this process that i believe God is leading to begin.

my prayer today is that we each discover who we truly are, trusting in God to transform each of us into a person who lives in openness and honesty every possible moment. may we each have the peace of knowing that we are living the life God created us to live. shalom

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

As with a Mother's Tender Hand

this is the last post about african-americans i remember from my childhood.  like many affluent women in the south, my mother always had a "woman" to help her around the house.  mother never called her helper a maid or nanny, but the main job of mother's helper was to take care of me and my younger brother.  i remember two of these women who took care of me when i was between the ages of four and ten.  one was named "jewel," and i loved her almost as much as i loved my mother.  i never knew why she left our employment; i don't think she left on bad terms, but i was crushed that she showed no interest in me when i saw her around town, because she was held such an important place in my heart.

jewel's successor was named "mary."  mary was a large, jolly woman who loved to play games with me, and mary and my mother became friends.  they worked together in the kitchen, shared the household chores, and played with me and my brother.  mary didn't come every day, so i was excited when one of mary's work days came.  i hated not being able to stay home all day with mary when i began school, though i loved going to school.  at lunch time, i would rush home so i could eat with mary, my mother, and my younger brother and hear about the activities of the morning.  after school, i rushed home to spend a few minutes with mary before my mother took her home.

occasionally, i was allowed to spend the day with mary and her husband mac on a weekend or during the summer.  theirs was the only black home that i visited in my young life, other than the time i went to check on john after he cut his toe mowing the lawn.  mary and mac lived in a small white house not too far out of town, but far enough from town to be considered "in the country."  they had a nice vegetable garden and raised hogs.  mac asked me once if i didn't want to come on "hog killing day," but i declined his invitation.  i couldn't imagine slaughtering an animal that one had raised, even though i loved pork.  i didn't want to be that close to discovering how the meat went from the hog pen to my plate.

mary was a wonderful cook and always had a special meal when i spent the day at her house.  i don't remember what she cooked for me on those occasions, but i do remember the happy conversation and the easy laughter between her and mac.  they both had hearty laughs, and i never saw either of them angry or unhappy.

as i got older, our family fortunes declined.  mother began to work part time in a local store and could no longer employ a helper.  we children were older, and there was less need for someone to help around the house, since we could fend for ourselves and didn't need such close supervision.  i'm not sure mother would have kept mary on, even had we been able to afford it, but i suspect that she would have because she enjoyed mary's company so much.  i missed mary and from time to time i rode my bike out to their house for a visit.  those visits were joyful occasions that continued until i graduated from high school and went away to college.  by that time, mac had passed away and mary decided to go live with one of her children.

i still miss mary and am certain that she missed me after our lives went their separate ways.  my prayer for each of us today is that we treasure our friends, regardless of the differences in our ages or stations in life.  may we know the joy of friendships that transcend the expectations of society and embrace those that come our way with an open and unprejudiced heart.  shalom.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What A Friend We Have . . .

there are two more african-americans from my past about whom i wish to write. like those about whom i've written in the past few posts, i have no idea what their last names were. the first i knew as "josephine;" i'll write about "mary" next post. josephine had known me from my infancy. i believe she had helped my mother when we first moved to the small town in which i was raised, the town in which my father's lumber mill was located. we moved there when i was about a year old.

my father had a fenced play yard built for me at the mill, and i am told i spent part of many days playing there. the employees of the mill would stop to talk to me as they passed my play yard, so many of these employees knew me. often as i got older, former employees of the mill (which had closed) would greet me by name and talk with me as i went to the small shopping area of town with my mother on saturdays. i had no idea who these adults, many of whom were black, were, but i enjoyed adults taking an interest in me and looked forward to these quick conversations.

one of those who frequently visited with me was josephine. josephine had sparkling white teeth, and her constant smile illuminated her face. she had dark brown eyes that seemed to dance as she spoke. i loved seeing josephine and sensed that i held a special place in her heart. i was very surprised during the end of my senior year in high school when josephine showed up at the back door of our home carrying a folded bundle of cloth. she explained to my mother and me that this was a graduation gift for me, and as we unfolded the bundle, we discovered a beautiful pieced quilt-top. this piece of work had probably taken josephine many hours to make. as a senior in high school i didn't know how to appreciate such a gift, but i could tell from my mother's reaction that it was a precious gift. i carried that quilt-top with me through several moves over the years, but along the way it got lost. i can still see it in my mind's eye, and i regret that i never had it made into a quilt.

josephine never played a big role in my life, but for some reason i was someone she loved deeply. perhaps, she never had children of her own or had lost a son, and i took that child's place in her heart. i often think of josephine and can still see her tall slender body and her beautiful face with its animated smile and dancing eyes. i can hear her lilting voice. how precious that memory is to me and how wonderful it is to remember the joy that filled my heart each time i saw josephine.

my prayer for myself and you today is that we remember that we never know how we may touch another's heart, as josephine and i touched each other's hearts. on the deepest level, we are all connected, vibrating as we do with the pulse of creation, and so we are all each other's brothers and sisters, parents and children, and our love for one another is the greatest gift we can give.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

this morning i remember miss ollie's nephew, a man named leethern. the contrast between leethern and miss ollie is as great a contrast as one can imagine. where miss ollie was a small woman who appeared large to my young eyes by her manner of carrying herself and her gentle, precise speech, leethern was a huge man, well over six feet tall. his skin was a deep brown. he walked with a slovenly gait and spoke in the same way. he was missing one eye, and where the eye should have been there was scar tissue that gave his face a frightening appearance to the young boy that i was. he had scars on his arms from many knife fights, and when he failed to appear in my grandparents' store for long periods of time, we knew that he was either in jail or recovering from the injuries of another fight.

as many of my grandparents' customers did, leethern kept a running tab at the grocery store. from time to time, he would have a little money that my grandmother said probably came from winning at craps and would pay something on his tab. miss ollie often inquired about leethern's debt to my grandparents, and if it had grown too large, she would pay it down to a level she hoped he could pay off himself. when she asked about what leethern owed, she would tell my grandmother that she worried about him constantly and waited for the day she would learn he had been killed in a fight. she asked my grandmother each time she paid on his bill to please let leethern have a little food on his tab so that she wouldn't have to worry about him going hungry.

i never saw them together, and it was my impression that she saw little of him, except when he needed money and would come by her home to ask for her help. i often wondered how someone like miss ollie could be realted to someone like leethern. my grandparents always treated leethern with kindness, and i believe they had some knowledge of his history that made them sympathetic to him, though they never spoke to me of what had happened to cause leethern to travel the destructive path that he was on. in time, as i matured, i too sympathized with leethern. he was a pathetic and tragic figure who stumbled through life without direction or purpose, and his deep sadness was apparent beneath the surface of his pretended toughness.

i don't know what became of leethern. i hope that he found redemption through the continued kindness of people like miss ollie and my grandparents, but i doubt that was the case. after my grandmother had to close her store, i never saw him again. by that time miss ollie was gone, and there was no further chance of contact with leethern.

my prayer today is that we look beyond the outward appearance and actions of others, searching for the deep truths of their lives, treating people like leethern with respect and kindness, hoping always for their eventual abandonment of lives of self-destruction and their coming to know the redemptive power of love, love that we share with them without expectation of the reward of love being returned. shalom.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Teach Us As Sister, Brother Each Person to Embrace

as i've thought about writing this post during the past few days, it suddently struck me that all the african-americans i knew as a child i addressed by their first names. in american society in the south during the period about which i'm wrting, the late 1950's, a child like me would never have addressed a white adult by that person's first name, but rather would have spoken to mr. x, mrs. y, dr. z. yet no one of any age addressed an african-american with this kind of respect; african-americans were addressed as one would a child or a pet. most of those about whom i'm writing are not known to me except by their first names, because that is how i heard them addressed and that is how i addressed them. looking back, this seems unbelievably insensitive to the respect that should have been accorded them, but the practices of society were so ingrained in white southerners that no one ever thought of the contempt for an entire race of people that this custom exemplified.

today i write about the only african-american from my childhood that was addressed by a title of respect, miss ollie. miss ollie was one of the best educated people i knew as a child. she was a customer in my grandparents' store and their neighbor. my grandparents' home was attached to their store, and miss ollie lived behind their home with an alley separating the two properties. her father had been a school administrator, and his parents were freed slaves. miss ollie taught in a school somewhere north of the town in which my grandparents lived, and she lived in that community during the week, returning home to the home she inherited from her parents on the weekend.

i always looked forward to seeing her in my grandparents' store during the summers, when she was at home during the week. her manner of speech was intriguing. she spoke in a sort of sing-song voice, and when she talked, i could almost hear a melody underlying her words. it was if she lived in an opera. it didn't matter to me what she said; i was fascinated by the way in which she spoke. she spoke with great precision, pronouncing every consonant crisply. there was none of the laziness of speech that characterizes our southern speech patterns.

my grandparents treated miss ollie with great respect, never calling her by only her first name. yet i never heard them say her last name. perhaps adding the "miss" to her name was as far as they could go in addressing a black person. their entire bearing changed when she came into the store, and even a child my age could sense that she was someone special--a person who had overcome adversity and risen above the station that society had assigned her, a person whose family had not been content to accept the roles that were expected of them, a person who cared deeply about the children of the communities in which she lived and worked.

miss ollie's posture, like her speech, was regal. though she was short, about five feet, four inches, the way in which she stood and moved indicated that she had great respect for herself and expected no less from others. maybe that is another reason she was held in such high regard in both the black and white communities. i often thought that her students were so fortunate to have miss ollie as their teacher and wished that i could have a teacher like her. i am sure that she instilled in them a pride in their race that helped them overcome many adversities and made them question the way that they were treated in a segregated white-dominated society.

there are so many questions i would like to ask miss ollie now that never occureed to me as a child who accepted the societal norms of the time. i wonder what instilled such dignity in her, what her parents taught her that enabled her to become such an amazing woman. my prayer today is that each of us can overcome the expectations of society, that we will question the roles of gender and birth that society tries to enforce, treating ourselves and others with respect that disregards the expectations of society.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

We Meet You, O Christ, in Many a Guise

a few days ago, i was listening to national public radio while driving around. a news story came on about a new deal program to support artists during the great depression. the story focused on the many works by african-american artists that might never have been created without the support of roosevelt's new deal. the subject matter of these works would have found little support in the market place, and an important commentary on the lives of african americans in a segregated society would never have found expression. in today's political climate, art works with no commercial value would be viewed as insignificant, and the idea of a government program that pays artists to create, especially with complete freedom of expression, would be decried as a "socialist" plot.

these art works documented aspects of african-american life that were completely unknown to the majority of americans, leading me to think about my own experiences and attitudes. i am fortunate to have grown up in close contact with african americans. my father was the manager of a saw mill that employed many african americans, and my mother's parents operated a "mom and pop" grocery on the fringe of a predominately black neighborhood where most of their custormers were african americans. i can't pretend to have had close friendships with any of the african americans with whom i came in contact growing up, but i did have the experience of having many black acquaintances, something that was unusal for most white children.

during the next several posts, i want to describe some of those acquaintances and their influence on my life. i wish that i had more sensitivity to the experiences of african americans in the segregated south during my formative years in the 1950s and 60s, but as a child such thinking was foreign to me as it would have been to most children. my grandfather operated a small farm outside of the town in which his grocery store was located, and he employed a black "hired man" named John to help him on the farm and to do a few odd jobs around the store and my grandparents' home. John would be what we now call a "day laborer." he didn't receive a weekly salary, but was employed from day to day as my grandfather needed him. To my knowledge, he had no other employment, so his income was meager.

two incidents stand out in my mind. one was awakening early one morning while staying with my grandparents. i jumped up in the bed when i realized my bed was off the floor and being rotated. my grandfather was holding up the head of the bed and john was holding up the foot. my grandmother had decided to rearrange the bedroom in which i slept, and, rather than waking me, was supervising the moving of the bed with me in it. when john saw how startled i was, he broke out in laughter, commenting on how they were scaring me. his laughter was infectious and soon my grandparents and i were laughing hysterically along with john. the room rearrangment had to stop while we all recovered. from that moment on, i had a deep affection for john.

a few summer's later while i was once more staying with my grandparents, as i always did in the summer from the age of six through my sophomore year in college, john was mowing my grandparents' yard with their gasoline-powered mower. as he pulled the mower back toward him, he lost control of it, and it backed onto his foot. in those days, there was no safety shut-off on gas mowers, so the blade continued turning, slicing through john's shoe and almost severing his big toe. his cries brought all of us out into the yard, where he sat on the ground, holding his foot and moaning. my grandmother ran to inspect the foot, and her soothing manner helped john regain control of his emotions. he asked for some kerosene to be poured over the cut and for bandanges to wrap his foot. both were supplied, and my grandmother dressed his wounded foot. i worried all day about john's injury, and at mid-afternoon i asked my grandmother if we could go check on john.

she and i walked to his house a few blocks away, knocked on the door, and were admitted. i don't remember who greeted us, but i do remember john sitting in the darkened front room in a big easy chair with his injured foot propped up. i was old enough to drive by this time and had my car there at my grandparents. i begged john to let me take him to the doctor. he assured me that he would be fine without assistance from the doctor, but he was profuse in his thanks for the offer and for our taking time to come check on him. i could sense that john was deeply touched by my concern for him. from that time on, john went out of his way to befriend me, always seeking me out when i came to visit my grandparents and asking about my welfare during the school year when i was back with my parents.

i wish i could say that i kept in touch with john, but after my grandfather died and my grandmother became too infirm to keep their store open, i lost contact with him. i will always remember how kind this man who was probably forty years my senior was to me. he sensed my affection for him, and, despite the ill treatment he received from many whites, he saw me, not as a representative of an oppressive race, but as a child who dared to reach out to and love a black man. i am grateful to have known john and to have enjoyed his gentle friendship with me.

my prayer today is that we learn to love others in spite of our prejudices and the limitations of the society in which we live, just as jesus loved the samaritans, greeks, and canaanites who came to him. shalom

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

God Who Touches Earth with Beauty

six mornings each week, i go to the church around 5:30 to practice. i spend the first thrity minutes of that time sitting in one of the pews in prayer and meditation. as i've sat there for the past several weeks looking toward the chancel, the harmony of the church's design has spoken to me. architecture and its impact on us is a fascination of mine, and i am convinced that the design of the rooms in which we spend our time has a profound effect on our mental condition.

from wherever one sits in the church the eye is drawn to the center of the back wall, which is framed by a large arch. in this focal point, three crosses are mounted on the wall, the center one larger than the other two, an obvious reference to Jesus' crucifixion with the two criminals on either side of him. in the recessed area outlined by the large arch is the main choir seating area.

from the three crosses, as the eye backs away, one becomes aware of two smaller arches on either side of the large arch, mirroring the the three crosses. in front of each of these smaller arches, there are organ pipes, and these pipes are arranged with large central pipes surrounded by small pipes on either side.

backing away from the arrangement of three crosses, three arches, and the organ pipes, one sees that the front of the chancel has a tripartite configuration with the communion table in the center, the pupit to the left and a lectern to the right. because of its location in the center with a large wooden panel that hides the organ console behind it and the large arch with its three crosses as a frame, the communion table becomes part of the central focal point.

the choir seating area itself is arranged into three sections, too, with the large central section inside the large arch and two smaller "wings" on either side of the main seating area. this arrangement is mirrored in the congregation's seating area, which has a large central area that occupies the major portion of the cruciform shape of the room. on either side of this long seating area are smaller seating areas that occupy the left and right areas of the cross arm of the room.

everywhere one looks in the room, there are reminders of the number three. the three large stained glass windows are divided into three panels. there are three smaller stained glass windows on either side of the long seating area. these three-part arrangements and the mirroring of the choir seating area and the congregation seating area give the room a unity and harmony that is not apparent at first, though i believe that our subconcious mind registers the subtle beauty of what appears to be a very simple, plain room, at first glance.

the angling of the seats in the two smaller congregation seating areas, the central steps directly in front of the communion table that lead up to the chancel, and the placement of the lighting directly in front of the chancel all direct the eye to the large arch with its three crosses. there are two smaller hanging lanterns over the side congregational seating areas and a large central lantern that hangs from the center of a dome formed in front of the chancel.

the designer of this room has created a small architectural masterpiece that nurtures the worshippers and honor the God who is worshipped there. my prayer today is that we find harmony and unity in our own lives, just as the room i've described creates such feelings in its occupants. may the God of beauty be reflected in our lives and hearts. shalom.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

To Question Is the Answer

lately my schedule seems to make me later than i'd like to be in writing new posts, so today i'm composing this post much later than i had planned. if there are those who check my blog for a new post earlier on tuesday morning, my apologies. today, i write about faith.

i'm serving on a search committee in our church, and yesterday we received a resume from a new applicant. part of the applicant's submission was a statement of faith that enumerated several very specific, concrete beliefs. i found this to be troubling, and perhaps that is a commentary on the weakness of my own faith. as i told the other committee members, the rigid, doctrinaire quality of the statement of faith was both troubling and frightening to me.

this morning during my prayer and meditation time, i gave some thought to my attitudes towards this applicant's statement of faith and asked God for guidance. why did i find the applicant's sincere faith statement so troublesome? i am always suspicious of those who are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs, of those who are certain that what they believe is correct. God is so complex, and to reduce our understanding of God to a set of articles of faith or a concrete creedal statement seems to me to be an attempt to place God in a box so that we create the illusion that we fully understand who God is and how we relate to God.

God is beyond human understanding, and when we remove the mystery of a Being who can create life simply by thinking, we make God less than God truly is. Simple, pat explanations may be helpful to us on a very rudimentary level, but as we grow in understanding, we learn how difficult the mystery of God is; the more we learn, the more questions arise.

now i find myself judging another because of that other's certainty about faith, a certainty which i don't share and which i find suspect. should i feel this way? should i find another's absolute faith in orthodox doctrines about the christian faith disturbing to the point that i find it hard to trust such a person? probably not, but God will lead me to the understanding that is consistent with the light God gives me. until that time, i'm afraid i will remain a skeptical of the beliefs of those who have absolute certainty about the details of the faith.

my prayer today is that we all continue to search for the truth, seeking God's leading to greater and greater understanding of the deep mysteries of God, never settling for easy explanations or orthodox formulas that oversimplify that which may ultimately be unknowable.