do not be afraid

And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you:  you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
(Luke 2:10-12) 

They were minding their own business when it happened.  They were doing what shepherds do.  They were abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night — making sure no wild animal would invade the flock and do them a harm.  Those shepherds were hardly expecting the veil between the worlds to be torn back that night so a heavenly host could peer down from heaven, bringing them good news of great joy for all people.

The Bible is full of stories of people being caught unawares.  There they are, minding their own business, when all of a sudden God shows up and demands something from them.  Of course the demand is usually preceded by the words, “Do not be afraid.”

Yeah, right.

God does not want us to be afraid.  But the truth is we are a lot of the time.  We’re afraid of the future and its unknowns.  We’re afraid of things we don’t understand and can’t control.  We’re afraid of terrorism and war and the ground shifting beneath our feet.

“Do not be afraid,” God tells us over and over again – usually sung by angels.  And the reason we are not supposed to be afraid?  Because God is with us.  Because God has always been with us.  Because God will never not be with us — and because this is true we know that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.

Saving God, calm our worries, still our fears, send your angels of mercy to soothe us when we are afraid.  Help us to know, trust, and believe, that if you brought us to it,
you will see us through it.  Amen.

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keep awake

Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you I say to all: ‘Keep awake.’                 (Mark 13:35-37)

One of my favorite artists is a guy named Brian Andreas.  He has very strange artwork and most of the time it delights me by its peculiarity.  We have one of his wall sculptures in our house.  It’s supposed to be an angel – you can tell by the oddly shaped wire wings — and like all angels, it comes with a message:

Most people don’t know there
are angels whose only job
is to make sure you don’t
get too comfortable,
she said.
They know how
easy it is to
fall asleep
& miss
your
life.

It’s easy to fall asleep and miss our lives.  When life is painful, when the news is filled with what seem to be insurmountable problems, and when our spirits are weary from trying to be hopeful in the midst of it all — it can be tempting to tune out, turn off, fall asleep.  What is harder is to be present, to keep caring, to pay attention, and to watch, wait for, and believe in the signs of God’s appearing in our lives and in our world.

The season of Advent is upon us and it is all about staying awake; keeping watch; waiting for ‘the master of the house [to] come.’  The more I live as an intentional Christian, the more grateful I am for the structure and rhythm of the Church’s calendar.  Advent is the beginning of our year, and our year begins with one task.  It’s not a simple one but our charge is clear: keep awake.

Gracious and loving God, you know how hard it is for us to wait and to keep watch,
so you have given us Mary and her beloved son, Jesus, that we might learn how to be patient — waiting with her and watching for Him: the One who comes to save us.  Amen.

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rest and be thankful

Somewhere in the Highland Mountains of Scotland there sits a stone seat with the inscription, “Rest and be thankful.”  I picture this seat atop some beautiful jagged peak at the end of a long and arduous trail.  What a welcome sight this stone bench must be after a hard journey; what friendly words to read after one has made the long climb up a mountain trail.

I have been to the Highlands.  They are far from the gently rolling wooded hills of Pennsylvania.  They are nothing like the mellowed angle of the Appalachian Mountain range.  The Highlands are rough and craggy, jagged with exposed rock.  Any rest taken atop those mountains would be well earned.

There is nothing quite like reaching the summit after trudging up the face of a mountain.  During a hard hike it can be easy to lose sight of your destination; to forget why you ever thought such a journey would be fun in the first place.  But there is nothing like reaching the top and gazing out upon a vast and beautiful landscape.  There is a reason why some events in life are called “mountain top experiences.”  The perspective is wondrous and if you let it, it will change you.

The season of giving thanks is upon us, and with it comes a rare opportunity to rest.  Thanksgiving is one of those uncommon days in our common life that remains relatively free to be what it is: a day to rest and be thankful.  There are no gifts to give.  There are few cards to send.  There are only sumptuous feasts to prepare and savor around tables hallowed with prayer and loved ones.  It is one of the few days that we allow ourselves to cease, to rest, to savor, and to experience the deep gratitude that wells up within us.

For people of faith, this quality of rest and thanksgiving is called Sabbath.  Sabbath is practiced on different days in different religious traditions, but what is so important about Sabbath-time is the way it changes us.

It is no secret that we live in a culture where work can become the center of our lives, and over-work can become of badge of honor.  Even our leisure activities these days can take on a kind of deadly seriousness.  But people of faith have long known that rest is essential to the life of the spirit.  This knowledge is conveyed in the book of Genesis with regard to the creation of the Sabbath:

“And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done,
and rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.
So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested
from all his work which he had done in creation.”
(Genesis 2:2-3)

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches in his seminal work, The Sabbath, three acts of God mark the seventh day: God rested, God blessed and God hallowed (that is, God made holy).  It is no accident that these three things occur together — for to bless and to make holy require a center of calm and serenity only a spirit of restfulness can provide.  The kind of rest which brings ease and relief from work is important.  But the rest of the spirit — the rest which gives birth to thankfulness — is a different kind of rest entirely.  And the life of faith must be punctuated by it.

May this season of thankfulness bring you much joy.  May your hearts be quieted and renewed by the tranquility that rest can bring.  And may these days of giving thanks prepare a place within your spirit for the gratitude that is a witness to faithfulness.

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Practice, Practice

When I was a kid growing up in California, I used to swim competitively.  It was pretty serious.  We swam every morning from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., and every evening from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.  By the end of the day, it was quite within the realm of possibility to have swum upwards of five miles.  We were pretty good.

Kids can get pretty good at the things they practice.  It’s kind of scary, really, when you look at how accomplished some of our young people are.  We’ve got kids in this church who sing like they’re heading to Broadway; kids who play soccer like they’re going to the Olympics; kids who are scary-smart and get great grades.  We’ve got dancers and instrumentalists and athletes and scholars.  We’ve got kids playing bells and kids learning how to be leaders; kids teaching other kids how to be good citizens and good friends.  We are indeed blessed with an abundance of riches!

All this practice really does make a difference.  Like I said before, it’s scary to watch how good kids can get at the things they work hard at doing.  If it was me — at the age of 53 — taking up an instrument?  Well… enough said.

But kids, can pick up stuff so quickly.  Their young minds are like sponges.  Everything they learn, everything they practice, can make such a huge difference in their lives.  It practically goes on “the hard drive” of their little bodies, minds, and spirits.

And so, for that very reason, it is so important for us to respect and honor the shaping power of our faith – if we give it a chance.  Practice, practice – it makes such a difference.  It’s true whether we’re talking about football, ballet, playing the trumpet, or practicing the life of faith.

It takes practice to learn how to pray.  It takes practice to learn how to center ourselves in God’s Spirit.  It takes practice to discern what is good for us and what is soul-destroying.  It takes practice to recognize when we are being tempted, and what to do in those circumstances.  It takes practice to cultivate hope in the midst of times of personal despair.  It takes practice to learn to stand up for what you believe in, even when you find yourself standing alone.  These are faith-based practices, and it takes time to develop them.

What’s really important to remember is that these practices will last you a lifetime.  You’ll never outgrow them.  You’ll never get too old or too out of shape to do them.  The more you practice, the deeper and richer the journey becomes.

So, let’s practice together — old and young alike.  It’s what we’re here for.  And, you know what?  We’re pretty good at it.

 

 

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A Season of Return

The fall is my favorite season.  I love the cooler temperatures, the changing colors, the signs all around that Creation is beginning to bed down for the winter.  I love the rhythm of the fall with its regular routines, the return of “normal” schedules, and the excitement of children heading off for their first day of school.

But of all the things I love about the fall, it is the sound of geese overhead that stirs me the most.  What an awesome mystery it is, that these noisy creatures know when to head off on their navigational adventures.  What a wonder it is that they know where to go when they do.  Wherever and whenever they go their rhythm of departure and return is a powerful and comforting mystery of God’s Creation.

Maybe it’s because I spent so much time in school – but I am much more inclined to make “resolutions” in September than I am in January.  I am much more inclined to believe that I can “turn a corner,” “close a chapter,” “turn over a new leaf.”  New notebooks, freshly sharpened pencils, well organized book bags, a clean calendar – all speak of endless possibilities to me.  The words of one “Assurance of Pardon” come to mind: “The past is finished and gone, everything has become fresh and new!”

Teshuvah is the Hebrew word for repentance.  It means, literally, “turning.”  Teshuvah denotes the genuine change of heart which impels the sinner to turn from evil and return to God.  It is this kind of returning to God which is at the center of the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which our Jewish neighbors will soon be observing.

The season of return.

For our Jewish friends these days of turning towards God will be particularly holy ones.  For Christians, they can mean a recommitment to personal prayer practices; a return to regular worship attendance; a rededication to the life of faith expressed in religious community and in the world.

In this season of returning to God, how are you caught up in the turning?

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praying with the right side of your brain: a meditation for ash wednesday

It was the 25th Anniversary of the ordination of the first Lutheran woman and we had been invited to the Lutheran Seminary in Germantown to help them mark the occasion. Back then, I was singing with the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir — a choir of 50 diverse women united in their belief that music could be a vehicle for social change.

At the time, our son Samuel was three-and-a half-years old and, being three-and-a -half years old, he did not usually join me at concerts. But this particular night was different, and Sam took the opportunity to give me a lesson in life and theology.

On the way home from the concert, journeying through the silence and the dark night together, Sam asked me a question from his car seat in the back:

“Mommy, did somebody die?”

I quickly scanned my mental files, trying to recall any thread, any piece of information that Sam might have received that night which would trigger such a question. And then I remembered the introduction to a piece we sang called, “Living in Wartime.” It was a song written by the composer Michael Callen. The song is about AIDS – and Michael had died of AIDS several years before after living with the disease for over ten years.

I answered my son, “Do you mean the person who wrote the song?”

“Yes,” was Sam’s answer. “Why did he die, Mommy?”

“Because he had a disease that, if you get it, it means you’ll die.”

And then there was a long and thoughtful pause.

“Is Daddy going to die?”

“Yes. But hopefully not for a long, long time.”

“When I’m a Daddy, will Daddy die?”

“After you’re a Daddy, and Daddy becomes a Grandpa, and a long time after that.”

“Are you going to die Mommy?”

“Yes.”

“Am I going to die Mommy?”

“Yes, Sam-man. But not for a very long time; not until after you grow all the way up and become a Daddy and grow to be a Grandpa, and grow way older than Grandpa is now.”

There was another long and thoughtful pause from the back seat.

“Hmmm. This is serious” Sam said.

“Mommy, I don’t know how to die.”

And after another pause.

“Huh. I guess I’m going to have to learn how to die.”

And Mommy said, trying to navigate through the veil of darkness and wonder that surrounded us, “That’s something that we all need to learn how to do, hun-bun.”

Maybe it’s because our Lenten Art Project is guaranteed to bring out the child in all of us. Or maybe it’s because we are entering a season that invites us to ask all the hardest questions. Or maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I am thinking more and more about the past. Whatever the reason, my son’s words from his car seat in the dark of night came back to me as I pondered what I could possibly say to you on this solemn and peculiar occasion we call Ash Wednesday.  Sam was right: this is serious. He was also right that dying is something that needs to be learned.

So what are we doing here tonight? What’s the whole point of this Ash Wednesday thing anyway? Well, the truth is – we’re doing the very thing that Sam said we needed to do. We’re cozying up to death – our own death – like it or not, ready or not. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminding ourselves – in a very public and symbolic way – that we are mortal; that this mortal body will perish.

We have George Klein to thank for the ashes. These are the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday – gathered up, set on fire, and burnt until they’re nothing but a black, gritty dust. That’s the Church’s tradition all over the world. Then, the pastors smear those cinders on the hands and foreheads of the faithful in the shape of a black cross, saying: “Remember: you are dust and to dust you shall return.”[1] It’s an interesting practice, don’t you think? It’s an interesting ritual: to take the palms and burn them and use them to remind us of our mortality.

My husband once told me that he doesn’t really know what to say when he comes forward for the ashes and hears, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Being the polite man that he is, most of the time he says “thank you.” But, the truth is, he’s not really feeling “thank you.” It’s hard to be reminded that we are dust; it’s hard to be reminded that we will die. Sam was right: this is serious. He was also right: dying is something that needs to be learned.

Ritual is a powerful thing. Ritual makes visible something that is invisible. Ritual makes physical what is in fact a spiritual process. Ritual is the soul’s way of beginning the process of transformation.[2]

Tonight we gather to share in a very peculiar ritual: to have ashes smeared on our foreheads; to remember that we are dust; to come to terms that this body which we inhabit will not last forever; that we are mortal. It’s serious; and it’s something we all need to learn.

Why do we do it? We do it because it works. We do it because it speaks to a part of our soul that words alone cannot. We do it because it moves us to a place in our spirit that logic alone cannot address. We do it because we are lonely and broken and deeply flawed creatures and that is what Ash Wednesday is all about. It’s about standing at the foot of the cross, smeared in dirt, remembering that we are – every one of us – in desperate need of a Savior.

Sam was right: this is serious. Beloved in Christ, it’s time to get busy.

[1] Debbie Blue, “Food for Worms,” Sensual Orthodoxy, (St. Paul: Cathedral Hill Press, 2004) 89.

[2] Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003), 15.

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repairer of broken walls

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” 
(Isaiah 58:12, NIV)

The restoration of the old mill had been a success, but MacLeod believed a new undertaking was needed.  He continued to wrestle with the Church’s irrelevance in the lives of his struggling parishioners, and he wanted to try something new.  He wanted to undertake an experiment in Christian community; to live out the faith in intentional community.  Familiar with the island of Iona, he knew of its ancient buildings.  The abbey church had been rebuilt at the turn of the 20th century, but the monastic quarters and outbuildings were still in ruins.  So MacLeod gathered a team of ministers in training and skilled craftsmen and set about the task of rebuilding the monastery of Iona.  MacLeod recruited the ministers; Bill Amos, a master mason, recruited the craftsmen.  Once the whole team had been assembled, a regular rhythm of work and worship was established.

“Initially, it was a scheme to train young ministers through worship, work and sharing the whole of life, and to enable working men to realize that they had a vital part to play, and were needed by, and in, the Church.”[1]

 The ministers in training spent part of their day in Bible study and theological reflection.  The remainder was devoted to working alongside the craftsmen as unskilled labor – helping in whatever ways they were able and “learning a little about how the workers of the world saw themselves.”[2]   The men of the early Iona Community (and they were only men) lived together, ate together, worked together, worshiped together, played football in their free time, and engaged in rigorous discussions about the role of the Church in society.

Ministers in training who participated in the early Iona community agreed to a two year apprenticeship.  Their summers would be spent on the island; the rest of the year they would serve parishes willing to accept them – often in areas of social deprivation.  But not all parishes were willing to accept an “Iona man.”  Some of these ministers couldn’t get jobs.  They had stepped out of the normal path of ministry and found themselves identified by the mainstream Church as “a slightly dodgy, heterodox, rabble-rousing group…”[3]

The craftsmen who participated in the Iona community made their own sacrifices.  While MacLeod’s original vision included putting the unemployed back to work, none of the craftsmen who worked on the abbey were drawn from the unemployed.  Rather, the men who labored to restore the 13th century monastery gave up their jobs in the city in June, knowing that they would be out of work when they returned in September.

One of the principles of the Iona Community – at its founding and still today – is that, ‘work is worship: labor is holy.’  The Benedictines, who believe the same thing, had another way of putting it 1500 years ago: Ora et labora (pray and work).


[1] From an interview with Uist Macdonald, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, by Anne Muir, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 15.

[2] From an interview with Douglas Trotter, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, by Anne Muir, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 27-28.

[3] From an interview with Richard Holloway, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, by Anne Muir, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 26.

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