A Pastor's Ponderings and Such

Passionate Faith

1st Biblical Witness: Joel 2:26 – 28

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; all your children shall prophesy, your elders shall dream dreams, and young ones shall see visions.

2nd Biblical Witness: Acts 10:44 – 48

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Reflection: “Passionate Faith”

The Bible is a book filled with complex and conflicting stories. One of the tensions which runs from the Old Testament to the New Testament has to do with two ideologies. One is that those who follow the God of these writings are to be separate because they are special. They aren’t to mingle with others – and this is for various reasons. The second ideology has to do with welcoming the stranger, the ones on the margins, the ones in need of shelter and food. Those who wish to, may convert and be afforded equal access to the God of these writings. Those who don’t wish to convert are still treated as equals in the community, but religion is not pushed on them.

Pentecost celebrates the latter ideology and teaching, and goes beyond that. The Spirit is available to everyone in an active kind of way. What was promised in Joel is delivered and more. The telling from Acts 10, which is quite a bit after the Acts Pentecost story, says, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” In Acts 2, the believers received the Spirit. Here in Acts 10, in this story of Gentile seekers, the Spirit is poured out lavishly all over the place.

So why is there this other teaching – that we need to be separate, pure and undefiled by those who are other than us? It’s a dangerous teaching because it’s based on one set of people being good and right, while another set of people are bad and wrong, while also having the ability to tarnish and corrupt those who are good and right. It actually renders the so-called good and right as being pretty fragile and easily broken. The holy shine, it seems, can dull quite easily.

Do you believe that? I sure don’t. Neither does Joel, or Pentecost, or Acts 10 since Holy Love doles out Spirit unequivocally without partiality. So, what’s with the xenophobia? This is what I think based on the stories. I’m not making an absolute statement, just sharing how the tellings unfold for me.

We humans can get scared easily. Often, we like power and if there’s a threat to our power … our autonomy … we run away or lash out. In the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, the Jews were legitimately threatened a lot. There are multiple tellings where they were captured, colonized, banished, and exiled. In order to keep from being totally subsumed, they were to stay to themselves and not be swayed by the dominant culture. Even times when they were doing the capturing and colonizing, they were warned not to engage with or in other practices; culturally and religiously. This is again based on the fear that what they had gained, they might lose without even noticing.

In the Christian Bible we see the religious and political leaders pushing back against this new movement which was unafraid of being unclean and unconcerned with the letter of the law when it conflicted with the spirit of the law. 

I believe that the tension between these two ideologies isn’t specific to our writings, but it’s a human tension. We want to be kind and loving. We want to be open and sharing. And we want to protect ourselves; be safe and keep our kin safe. So we set up rules about how and to whom we can be open, kind, loving, and sharing. Sometimes they help guide us, when we hold those rules loosely. Sometimes though, they become the thing itself, rather than the guide.

Celebrations like Pentecost and the teaching from Acts 10 remind us that we are alive and that our faith can be alive too. We don’t have to be contained in a box of fear and concern. Not only is our faith and personhood not fragile, neither is God’s unconditional love and companioning with us fragile. Peter and his friends found that out when they went to Cornelius’ house, the gentile and his family. Their faith wasn’t compromised a bit when God went further than they expected. In fact, it grew in a way they couldn’t have imagined.

Not only is today Pentecost, but it’s also Pride month. On this first Sunday of Pride I want to tell you a story of my coming back to faith and a faith community. I had a falling out with a church whose theology was corrective of my not being heteronormative. I don’t need to go into all of that. You know how those stories go. It was painful. I still held God close to my heart, but I was no longer convinced that I was a person of faith. I also decided that the giving of myself to a faith community was just not worth it. At the same time, I wasn’t particularly “proud” of being LGBTQ+; of my queerness.

I moved to Chicago and every year there was a Gay Pride Parade and celebration. Mostly, it was an inconvenience to me. You couldn’t get around that area of town at all, and other neighborhoods were effected too. But, after a few years I started to wonder what it was all about. Why were people so excited about the celebration? What did they have to be proud of? With a bit of an internal shield in place, I ventured in. It was fine. I can’t say I was impressed, although the people I was standing next to were fun and kind. They offered me water and a sandwich. They asked me questions to get to know me a little. My shield started to go down by increments.

I was starting to have fun, but I still didn’t feel proud. Then I saw a group of people marching with signs. The group was the Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches. There were 30 churches represented and they took up two blocks worth with those marching. Sign after sign of churches marched by. Multiple churches from each denomination. UCC. Methodist. Lutheran. Baptist. Episcopal. MCC. and more. I started to weep. In the midst of all that a Pride parade is, with all the skin and music and dancing, there was this cohort of people who I never expected to be there. 

It was a Pentecost moment for me. Suddenly I realized that everyone there was presenting themselves in their fullness. In a sense, I felt dared to not accept and love them. I felt dared to be proud, to accept and love myself. 

I looked them up afterward and starting volunteering for them. I was making calls to our members asking folks to volunteer for Northalsted Market Days which is a weekend long live music street festival in Boystown, one of the Chicago gayborhoods. One of the calls I made answered this way – Chicago Theological Seminary, Admissions. For about 3 seconds I couldn’t speak. I was thinking about going to seminary and CTS was the preferred choice, but I was really dragging my feet. I was still on a journey to fully accept myself. Didn’t that have to come first?

I asked for the person I was calling for. She was the Admissions Director. When I got her on the phone I said I’d called on behalf of the Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches, but I probably had to have another conversation with her if she had time. She made time for both.

I ended up getting my Masters of Divinity from CTS and I ended up as Co-Moderator of the CCWC for several years, helping to organize, amoung other things, that cohort walking in the parade.

Since then I’ve been with Christians who are passionate about their faith, showing up for all kinds of important events and moments. The values of the God who crosses boundaries, who sprinkles the spirit liberally on all who desire, and whose spiritual expression comes through those humans in so many diverse ways, is what our faith is all about and why I get passionate to experience it, express it, and proclaim it in a prophetic way.

We need to remember Peter and those with him who were stunned that the Spirit was shared with those they didn’t expect it to be shared it. If we aren’t engaged with our faith in a way that we see evidence of the moving of God in places that surprise us and maybe even shock us, then we aren’t getting out enough. Even if we begin with shields up internally, we have to begin. There’s no end to the goodness of God. More than that, there is no end to the goodness of people. The writing in Joel and Acts, is letting us know that God wants to gift the spirit to anyone and everyone. 

The Spirit’s expression is vast and varied. While the Acts stories of the spirit’s presence talk a lot about speaking in tongues, remember what was written in Joel. Your children will prophesy. They will speak truth to power. They will push against systemic violence and usher social justice into existence. Your elders shall dream dreams, and young ones shall see visions. You will all see beyond your current circumstances. You won’t be held hostage by the status quo which want to claim your souls, but instead you will imagine the world as it should be; full of goodness, alive with hope, and daring toward a future of inclusion and equality which you will create together. The result is that all will have enough and more than enough. Not a few on the top, but everyone. And no one will be put to shame. That’s another commitment from the prophetic word from Joel. Shame will dissolve. You will be cleared from that bondage. With that freedom you will be able to see far and wide.

May the Spirit move you the way you are created to be moved. May you find your passion, be released from your burdens, and be surprised by the Spirit’s presence in unlikely places.

Happy Pride 2022

A Grieving Peace-Maker

The peace and grace of Holy Love be with you all.

The devastating and deadly attack at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX is the latest hate-filled mass shooting that I know of at this writing. There is no sending of comfort or strength which will make this manageable, although it make take just a bit of the edge off. The truth is, for many of us the trauma of these events keep building in our hearts, mind, spirits, and bodies. Topps Grocery Store in Buffalo, NY and Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, CA echo swiftly at the mention of Robb Elementary.

The question I ask myself and that others are asking is – how do we make this stop? Another question is – why is this happening at all? To these and all other valid and heartbreaking questions, there truly is no one answer. Violence has been a part of humanity since we began. In our creation story, by the fourth chapter, Cain kills his brother Abel. He became angry because it seemed like his younger brother was edging him out with God. This telling in our creation myth is a way to remind us of our potential for evil; a cautionary tale prodding us to seek other ways of managing our emotions.

Since deadly violence has been around since the beginning and is likely to continue, does this mean we should just give up? Not at all. We must continue to pursue peace, mercy, and love. We must teach against racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia, the patriarchy, and the like. It is imperative that we vote for those who seek peace-making measures / violence-abating measure. Our voices and actions need to take center stage against those who would rather control women’s bodies and families who love their gender-bending children; who would rather twist the second amendment to be about civilians having the right to wield military rifles.

While we grieve, we must also plan and activate a way to continue our message that these things ought not to be. We can make a difference. We must never give up. It’s important to take breaks … to love yourself and take care of yourself. To hold your family and friends close. And then take that energy to continue the pursuit of changing legislation and saving lives.

Go ahead and be shattered. Be angry. Don’t stop there. Renew your determination to peace-making, to celebrating good news, and to exposing the evils of power-hungry selfish bigots.

You are loved. You make a difference.

Supporting Others

Biblical Witness: Romans 12:6 — 18
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Contemporary Witness:
“Tune My Heart” by Rev. Vince Amlin (UCC Daily Devotional; May 2, 2022)

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 (NRSV)

Last week, my wife and I went to the Milwaukee Art Museum. In one of the galleries, there was a video installation playing on a loop. As we made our way into the next wing, my wife started humming a quick, four-note pattern.

“That’s the music that was playing over that video,” she said, and hummed it again.

“Uh…no it wasn’t,” I insisted. “It sounded like this.” And I sang a slow, descending three notes. We both looked at each other confused.

“Now we have to go back,” she said. And we did. The moment we opened the doors to the gallery, I heard those quick four notes she had hummed.

“You were right,” I admitted. But even as I said it, underneath them came my slow, descending motif. We were both right. Both lines had been playing over and over, and each of us had heard only one of them. Another example of the way the Spirit is made manifest, the way beloved community is built. Not by choosing one line to sing in unison, but by learning each of our parts well enough to find the rich harmonies between them. Not by convincing others to hear God’s voice the way I hear it. But by encouraging everyone to listen deeply to what the Spirit may be saying only to them.

Reflection: “Supporting Others”
We know that a part of our Christian teaching is that we’re supposed to support one another. This is not a revelatory subject. Some of the most basic tenets of our faith are principles like “treat others as we would like to be treated”, (The Gospel of Luke 6:31) and “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” which we read in our Romans passage.

Supporting each other is a way of making connections; creating and sustaining community. It’s the way that friendships grow and is especially powerful when it’s mutual rather than one sided. It’s a human desire and need – one that our ancestors knew was important enough that they put it into their teachings about God.

Knowing that you are a part of a supportive relationship or a member of a supportive community, is good for your mental health and wellness. It’s what got many of us through the isolation of the pandemic. While having solitude and alone time is really great for many of us, isolation can bring on despondency and despair. The line between the two varies from person to person. And the way we seek connection – what offers meaningful support – varies as well.

Rev. Vince Amlin, in his devotional, reminds us that we are all different. This got me thinking about how there are different ways that each of us need to be supported. Not only that, but also, how each of us has different was of being supportive.

On this second Sunday of Mental Health Awareness month, I want us to think about the ways we offer support to others. What are the ways that we feel required to offer support? What are the ways we flow effortlessly with support? Are they the same?

It’s easy to see needs around us. When those we care about are going through hard stuff, naturally we want to help. Along with sharing friendship or engaging in supportive community behaviour, this is a way to express Divine Love. While are faith teachings tells us that we are supposed to be zealous in giving, we also have to remind ourselves that each of us are finite beings. We can only do so much.

Paul writes to the people in Rome about the different kinds of gifts they have. Some are teachers. Some offer compassion. Some are encouragers. Some are leaders. The list goes on. Paul teaches that each person is to learn their gift and to flow in it.

That said, let’s not confuse having gifts that flow out of our personalities with the need to cultivate basic good human character.

For instance, compassion is mentioned as a gift by Paul, as is leadership. Does that mean that a compassionate person can’t be a leader. Or that a leader is not to have compassion? Ridiculous, right? Still, it’s something to think about. Sometimes we can make excuses for ourselves that we just aren’t gifted with x or y or z, and so we don’t have to cultivate that particular good human character. There’s a difference between being delighted to have a gifted way of offering support, and cultivating good character so that we can when the necessity of being support presents itself, we at least have the rudimentary skills of being there in the moment for someone until we can find a person who can really flow in that situation.

That’s also a part of self-care. Knowing where you’re gifted and knowing resources of others who have gifts that you don’t is a way of being supportive to yourself and to your community. We can get bogged down with all the ways we don’t know how to help or simply don’t have the skills. It can paralyze us which means we can’t be supportive in the moment. As we grow in maturity, we learn that we can’t do everything. That we truly are finite. As we grow in our faith, we learn that God doesn’t require us to be able to do everything; to have all the gifts or skills. What is required is that we care enough about each other to be there with and for each other.

We can all cultivate the basic skills of being decent to each other, and also be released to offer our particular set of gifts in certain situations to be helpful. It’s a joy to flow in our particular gifts. It makes us feel accomplished, fulfilled. When we are in that space, it means that the people who receive our gifts are able to do so freely because they were so freely and joyfully given.

The trick can be to know what kind of support a person might need. Rev. Amlin, when he talks about the song that he and his wife heard different parts of, helps us see that sometimes we only hear part of … and understand part of. Deep listening, like when they went back a second time to intentionally listen to the music, allows us to get a greater grasp on what is being expressed to us.

There are times when it’s easy to look at a situation and decide for someone what they need based on what we might need in that situation. And we might even be partially right. We might be hearing the four high notes or the three low tones, but maybe not putting it together.

When we offer support, it’s important to discern whether we are doing so for the health and well-being of the person we want to care for, or if we are doing it for our own sake. This can be something that is a challenge to figure out when we first undertake this kind of self-reflection; but after awhile, it can become almost second-nature. The key is to learn how not to make assumptions.

One of the things I appreciate about the teachings about Jesus’ ministry is that he often stopped to think or he asked questions before moving forward. Sometimes supporting each other is more about taking time to be together than it is about taking a specific action. Not always. Actions are important. Helping people find things they need, whether it’s items, lodging, food, water, medical services, job opportunities, and the like are crucial to offering support. A lot of times though, what’s needed first is our presence and our understanding. When someone feels like they are being offered what they have really asked for, their wellness quotient grows beyond the support they receive.

When we let go of our own need to be supportive and are present with the people we care about, all of our wellness factors increase, and love expands to fill the space we create. The presence of Holy Love knits us together, making us all stronger, better known, and healthier in our souls, hearts, and minds. Our faith leads us and our gifts flow.

1st Biblical Witness The Gospel Of Mark 16:9 — 13

Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

2nd Biblical Witness The Gospel Of Mark 16:10 — 20

Later Jesus appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.

Reflection      “Triumph And Purpose”

This morning we’ve read what is called the longer ending in Mark which is understood to have been written later and added on. In the shorter, original ending, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, and went to Jesus in his tomb to anoint him. Jesus was gone and someone else was there telling them Jesus had been raised from the dead. They were told to let the disciples and Peter know that Jesus would meet them in Galilee. They were terrified and ran away, which is entirely understandable to me.

The longer ending that we read is sometimes marked as being doubtfully authentic in the Bibles they’re written in. And not all Bibles even include it at all. I’ve never before used this longer ending for Easter. This year, it spoke to me. Stories and myths are reworked all the time. Although I’m confident that this longer ending was added later, that doesn’t take away from the fact that someone at some point felt like the people at the time needed it.

I’ve talked before about a book called, “The Telling” by Ursula LeGuin. How the story-tellers in her book would finish by saying something like, “well, that’s how I know the story.” None of the stories were considered set in stone – not meant to be factual. There was a depth of meaning conveyed through each telling, with each of their nuances.

The original writer of Mark probably wanted to share the intensity of what it felt like to imagine Jesus risen from the dead and making plans to meet his followers in Galilee. The writer was resonnating with the fear of the people at the time. Affirming them. Sharing their own confusion.

Why would someone come along later and replace the fear with teaching and a charge to action? I think it’s because whatever was going on at the time held too much fear and foreboding. This set of people probably needed reassurance, their faith bolstered, and hope for the impossible.

In this longer ending, the followers of Jesus were promised superhuman powers. After those promises, Jesus ascended into the heavens and took his rightful place at the right hand of God while the followers went out confidently to proclaim the good news, letting go of their fear. It’s very “happily ever after,” neat, and tidy. In the midst of chaos, it really helps to have a little happily ever after tossed in your direction. A sense of empowerment and agency, gives us the boost we need.

In book study we’re reading Amanda Gorman’s book of poems, “Call Us What We Carry.” One stanza from her poem, “The Truth In One Nation” says this

Some days we believe
in nothing
but belief. But
it is enough to carry us forward

Sometimes we just need something to believe in to help us move forward. Trust me, I’m not going to literally pick up a snake or drink a deadly thing to prove my faith or to feel accomplished. That doesn’t change the kind of inspiration we can get from the impossible symbols in the telling. We’re being told that whatever is out there that we’re afraid of is actually something we can face and conquer.

Today we talk about the power of resurrection. The power of overcoming and being remade. Christ resurrected is about life after death – about Holy Love infusing a moment so directly and intently that life erupts in a place where only death was possible. I believe in the Easter story of regeneration. I put my hope in a God who mixes Sacred Energies of Eternal Life with the Holy Energies of our mortal existence.

Some years we need the reminder that those who encountered the Risen Christ were confused and fearful. Other years, we need the comfort of our friend and teacher telling us that we are made of such stuff that we can overcome our obstacles; and not just overcome, but transform them into good news and abundant life, just like he was transformed from death to life.

Our obstacles the last couple years have been many. The pressure doesn’t seem to be letting up a whole heck of a lot. Much has been resolved, but there are new struggles emerging that we have to deal with. The shorter ending of Mark affirms our fear and confusion as a reasonable response. The longer ending reminds us that we don’t have to stay there. Our destiny is not to be paralysed. Maybe it’s to be shaken, but in a way that agitates us loose to be able to move away from what’s been confining us. We may not know what to believe in … but if we believe there’s something to believe in, that just may be enough to move us forward.

We’re called to do what others have given up on. That’s what all those symbols of healing folks and flirting with danger mean. There’s a power that flows through us which we don’t have to muster for ourselves. One we don’t have to be good enough or strong enough for. We just have to be open to it. Not a type of perfection of character or depth of wisdom. Just a willingness to proclaim that there is good news and to take kind positive actions on behalf of others. We wouldn’t have to proclaim good news if bad news wasn’t surrounding us. So of course it’s going to be a challenge. We will be confronted with obstacles … even doubt. That’s what makes the good news so important and compelling. It challenges the notion that the only thing that’s real are the struggles we face.

Death is real. But death isn’t the only thing that’s real. And it isn’t the biggest most important real thing. Life is. Community is bigger and more powerful than dissension. Addressing danger is more powerful than the danger itself. And sometimes we have to rewrite the story to remind us that we are strong, able, confident, and full to bursting with life. May the power of resurrection fill you and move you with good news and holy love that you can’t help but share.

More Than A Parade

1st Biblical Witness The Gospel Of Matthew 21:1 — 11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

2nd Biblical Witness The Gospel Of Matthew 21:12 — 17
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Reflection “More Than A Parade”
So there was this parade going on, as you probably know. It was a parade of military power to make sure the Jewish people in Jerusalem, those who lived there and those who made the pilgrimage there for the celebration of the Passover, stayed in line and didn’t revolt against their subjugation to the Romans. And as you likely know, the smaller parade that Jesus led while riding on a donkey while surrounded by cheering children as well as adults, was a protest against the military show of power.

There was more to that day, however. After Jesus comes through the lesser gate of Jerusalem on a much lesser steed than Pilate (a donkey versus a powerful military horse), he enters the temple and makes a mess. He’s angry because instead of the temple being filled with prayers, it has become a place of commerce for the rich and power grabbing for the elite. Jesus didn’t just get angry and trash the place though. After he drove out who he called “robbers” from the temple, the story tells us that, “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.”

His goal wasn’t just to make a spectacle. He was making room for the work of God and for the people who were least likely to be allowed into the temple or to be accepted if they got in.

The power of God and the house of God was and is meant for those who desire to be a part of the community and to experience Holy Love and Presence. It’s never to be reduced to a seat of power where people are silenced or minimized in order to recognize that power and to be put in their place.

This story is in all four of our Gospel accounts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all position it when Jesus is making his protest parade through the lesser gate into Jerusalem. John, however, makes it Jesus’ first public act as a leader. It comes just after he turns water into wine at the wedding at the behest of his mom.

There aren’t many stories which make it into all four gospels. Why is this one so important to all the writers? I think it’s because it shows Jesus’ heart as a leader. The temple building is symbolic of God’s presence. It’s where you go to meet with God – to perform rituals, to pray, and to gather for celebrations. Jesus drives out those who were exploiting the poor and then he offers direct access to those who were spurned and mistreated. He personally attends to them.

This foreshadows what’s about to happen when he dies on the cross on Good Friday. According to the synoptic gospels, which is what we call the writings of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – the ones which put the cleansing of the temple episode on the day of the parade – when Jesus dies, the curtain which separates the holy place from the holy of holies in the temple is ripped in two, allowing access to the place which held the very presence of God.

This was a place that God had instructed to be created to reside in when the temple was being designed. Just like the bread and the cup that we have for communion, which we understand to be symbolic and not literal, this Holy of Holies section of the temple was symbolic as God’s official apartment, not literal. How could God, in all God’s Godness, be contained?

It’s similar to this building we call the church. It’s our gathering place. Our praying place. And because of our activities here, the essence of God feels stronger here for a lot of people, myself included. But this isn’t a place to hold God captive. Holy Love is everywhere and can’t be contained. We should never insist that God is more here than anywhere else, let alone exclusively here. However, it’s a place where we might be able to focus better. A place where the years of prayers, rituals, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, and so many other meaningful events help to guide us toward the essence of the presence of Holy Love.

When Jesus decried the habits of the those in the temple, it was in order to let the vulnerable have access to a place that was supposed to be set aside for prayer – for contact with God and the community of faith. He was making room and creating a safer space for them by removing those who for so many years had taken advantage of them by treating their prayers as a financial exchange with God rather than a spirit to spirit engagement.

The day Jesus was the grand marshall of the counter protest of the military power of Pilate, he also protested religious elite’s exclusive approach to who had access to the place of prayer and who didn’t. But he didn’t stop at protesting. He then welcomed the people who he made room for.

This is what we celebrate today. Inclusion. Welcome. Centering those who have been dismissed and marginalized. We celebrate the protest too. The cheering children who feel like their voice matters. The adults who add their energies to the song and reach for the palm branches to wave in support. God is not held captive to the whims of a few powerful persons. Today we celebrate by remembering that there is room enough for all of us who want to pray, to love, to march in the parade, and to bind our hearts together in the call for human dignity.

Happy Palm Sunday, my friends. There is room for you.

Choosing Our Direction

Biblical Witness 1 Corinthians 3:10 – 17
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — the work of each builder will become visible, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Contemporary Witness “The Shallows” by Amanda Gorman
Touch-deficient &
Light-starved we were,
Like an inverted flame,
Eating any warmth down to its studs.
The deepest despair is ravenous,
It takes & takes & takes,
A stomach never satisfied.
This is not hyperbole.
All that is gorgeous & good & decent
Is no luxury, not when its void
Brings us to the wide wharf of war.

Even as we stand stone-still,
It’s with the entirety of what we’ve lost
Sweeping through us like a ghost.

What we have lived
Remains indecipherable.

& yet we remain.
& still, we write.
& so, we write.
Watch us move above the fog
Like a promontory at dusk
Shall this leave us bitter?
Or better?

Grieve.
Then choose.

Reflection “Choosing Our Direction”
So far this Lent our spiritual practice as a community has been to intentionally grieve our losses, mostly due to the pandemic. We’ve meditated on and expressed our griefs for ourselves, family, work, and church. Today, taking all those truths into consideration, we ask what’s next. What are your hopes and dreams for your future and for the future of Plymouth?

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he reminds them that they have choices to make. The foundation they’re building on is solid. It’s the foundation of Jesus himself, that of love and grace. He also reminds them that each of them are God’s temple. When he reminds them, he also reminds us. Each one of us is the dwelling place, the house, the vessel of Holy Love. He writes, “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

As a holy temple, Paul teaches that it matters what we build with. It matters how we build – the patience we have and whether we cut corners. How we build on our strong foundation determines how long what we build will last. And that could mean many many things. For instance, it isn’t just how many years a ministry is running that makes it successful, but how long did the ministry live in the hearts of those who participated in it? Some ministries are meant to only be for a year or two, but they last a lifetime in the hearts and souls of those who are a part of it.

This goes well beyond church ministry. We can talk about school, work, neighborhoods, friendships, any number of things that we build. How long they last in our hearts and souls determines how well they’re built. Not how long they last in active years.

In the poem called, “The Shallows,” Amanda Gorman lists griefs about the pandemic. Things like, “Touch deficit.” “Light starved.” She says, “All that is gorgeous & good & decent is no luxury, not when its void.”

And then she asks us a question. “Shall this leave us bitter? Or better? Grieve. Then choose.” Like Paul, Amanda is reminding us that we have choices that we can make and that how we build is as important as what we build.

We’ve learned a lot in the past two years. Did you know how resilient you could be? How innovative? Did you realize just how lonely you could get or how deeply you could enjoy the quiet of solitude? Maybe you’ve discovered that both are true for you? What have you discovered about yourself? The world? How have you changed for the better? How are you struggling in new ways? And what tools have you gained to better deal with life?

Finally, and possibly most importantly, how have the priorities of life changed for you? Is there something you’ve realized that you don’t want to lose? That you don’t want to forget? Something that you want to build on?

Amanda Gorman asks, should this experience leave us bitter or better. Well, we know the answer we’re supposed to give to that question. Unmistakably – better. But bitterness can be so still and subtle. It can hardly make a wave on our consciousness. This is why we took the time to name our griefs. To bring out to the open for our own examination, the pains we’ve been left with. The injuries that need healing. When we bring them out to the open, they can’t fester. When we shred them, that’s the symbolic act of letting them go so that they don’t become our identity. Not that our grief goes away like turning a light switch on and off. Just that we can learn to make choices about how we grieve and even to a degree, when. Once we do that, we can start making other choices, like what direction we might go next.

Now is the time. When so much has been shifted around and nothing is quite set yet, now is the time to begin to rebuild. What was built out of straw, that got burned in the fire of the pandemic, can now be rebuilt out of precious gems. We don’t have to build quickly. What we need to do is set our direction. That starts with knowing our priorities.

Sometimes when we build, we can no longer see the foundation. We forget what we were building on and why. The uniqueness of moments like these is that our loss in so many ways is our opportunity to glimpse the foundation and choose to clean it off. See what it was we were building on and why. To consider not only what’s been lost, but how we might have built better the first time. Then, to rebuild. Either something similar yet better. Or something else entirely.

First I want to remind you, once again, who you are according to Paul’s teaching. You are holy. And you are a builder with choices. Amanda Gorman says, “What we have lived remains indecipherable. & yet we remain. …Watch us move above the fog.” This gives me chills of hope. God gives us gifts, talents, energies, wisdom, and discernment. We are the architects of the next moment. We determine what we build and how we build above the fog.

The ministry of Jesus, the anointed one, the Christ, was to those who needed good news. He said he was anointed to proclaim release, to aid in recovery, and to lift oppression. He also told his followers that they were called to do the same as him, but better. As we choose our direction for new ministries or to revitalize previous ministries, this is the foundation we’re building on.

All that the pandemic gave us and took from us, helps to guide us toward our highest priorities. As I think about Plymouth moving forward in this new way of having Sunday Service and being the church together, I ask myself, who needs to hear the good news. Who is hearing bad news and what good news do we have to offer them? Maybe it’s as simple as saying, you can hang with us just as you are. And then of course we have to prove ourselves, as Jesus had to, that we really aren’t going to judge, and coerce a certain belief. In what way do we get involved in proclamations and actions for release of those who are being held hostage to a system that is wearing them down? How can we aid in recovery and lift oppression?

There are so many ways to live a life of Holy Love and loving ministry. The foundation we build on is firm and stable. The first direction we can choose is to build well, out of a deep sense of caring for all God’s creations, which we all are. What we build is definitely important. How we build though, is what makes what we build last.

Being Yourself

This is my reflection for Sunday Service of March 27, 2022

Biblical Witness: The Gospel Of John 1:19 — 23
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”

Contemporary Witness: Our Native Daughters – “I Knew I Could Fly” Behind The Scenes Documentary

Our Native Daughters’ Songs Of Our Native Daughters comes out Feb. 22 via Smithsonian Folkways.

Reflection: “Being Yourself”

Today our Lenten grief question is, “What are your church griefs about the pandemic?” The question is centered around the idea of the pandemic, but I want to acknowledge something first. There are a lot of people with church grief. I like to quote our own Rev. Jasmine Quinerly, our Association Minister, who says, “There’s no hurt like church hurt.”

When the church as an institution is more concerned with its institutional status or maintaining human imposed rules or requirements than they are with seeing, hearing, and caring for people individually and communally, the hurt caused to people becomes collateral damage for the sake of religion. Many of us have experienced that, myself included. It takes a lot to heal from such hurt because it’s a betrayal of what love is supposed to be. The church is meant to be an expression of love that comes from God through people. Too often – and whenever it happens it’s too often – the church is a place of spiritual judgment and moral certitude based on fears. The idea that what we understand about the spiritual realm might be inaccurate puts us in fear of punishment or hell. When I say “we” I am talking universally and generally – not speaking of any one of us specifically.

One of my goals as a spiritual leader and guide is to dispel this notion of fear – whether it’s a fear of being spiritually wrong, of punishment on this earth, or of some eternal torment like hell. When people are monitored and regulated to fit into boxes because the boxes make the those in power or in the majority feel safe, then those who don’t actually fit in the boxes are marginalized, bullied, and subjected to violence in all their spheres of being – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Plymouth is meant to be a sanctuary from that violence and from the expectations to fit into boxes. This is a place where you can do your work of deconstructing your internal narrative based on outside voices and rebuild yourself through the Holy Love you experience for yourself.

There is nothing more sacred and holy than discovering who you as a creation of Holy Love, made in the image of that love. For many of us, due to the pandemic, we lost personal contact with each other in our church setting. Community connection is one way for us to be inspired to continue the work of loving ourselves and finding ourselves. Being in isolation put us at risk of not being supported in our continued transformation and growth.

Being yourself … encountering yourself … experiencing yourself … these are not goals unto themselves. When we delve into understanding ourselves in a loving way we enter community differently. Our approach to life is more secure and outward focused. Sometimes we have to turn inward for a time to heal and become strong. But in the long run, our compassion toward ourselves helps us to deepen our understanding of others; to accept and celebrate all people – families and folks of all kinds. This is the community we are continually unfolding here at Plymouth.

What does it take to be yourself? To love yourself? How do you go about it, especially when there are voices, policies, legislations, and doctrines which restrict and punish those outside what is considered the norm? There is not easy answer. All I can offer is the encouragement to continue finding your authentic self in the image of Holy Love and the assurance that you are valuable and loved just for being you.

In the video of Our Native Daughters, the question is asked, what might Etta Baker had become if she had been allowed to be fully herself when she was younger? The women in Our Native Daughters acknowledge the shoulders they stand on which allow them to be independent, to travel, and play their music. The brilliance of Etta Baker lay dormant – hidden – for decades before she found the freedom to spread her wings. When she did, we all benefitted. It seems to me that she knew who she was and the gift she had been given. What a loss that she had to bide her time until she could let loose with her full self. What a blessing to all of us that she finally was able to. Our Native Daughters give credit to her perseverance and unfolding. They credit their own success to Etta Baker and people like her.

Right now, there are people being shoved back into the closet because of governmental bullying tactics. Some trans kids are afraid for their parents who want to support them, because their parents are being threatened with jail. Medical and educational providers are being threatened too. According to news sources, there have been about 240 anti-LGBTQ bills filed so far in the U.S. this year. According to Equality Texas, “All 30+ anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed this session were officially dead, including 13 direct attacks on transgender youth.” Another bit of good news is that there has been a partial block from the Texas Court of Gov. Abbott’s anti-trans directive to investigate families. However, all these bullying tactics have unleashed misunderstandings about what is legal and what isn’t, as well as given permission for the bullying of trans kids, their families, and honestly anyone who is lgbta+. Our national conversation influences the conversations in our neighborhoods, our families, and our churches.

At the same time, the conversations we have in our churches can influence our national conversation. What we do here, what we stand for, makes a difference.

In our Gospel story today, John the Baptist is being questioned by the religious leaders. They asked him, “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?” His answer? I am a voice crying out in the wilderness. He denied being the one come to save anyone. He refused the title of Elijah or prophet. All he embraced was being a voice crying out the directive to make a bee-line to God. He didn’t want anyone to feel like they had to go through him to get to The Divine. He also didn’t want people to feel compelled to go through a human being or institution in order to connect with The Presence of Love. He was just a voice calling out directions to the most direct route to God.

I imagine he felt pressure to call himself either more or less than he felt he was. They wanted him to say more so that they could put him in a box of their liking. He didn’t go for it. He refused. John knew he was taking a risk by not collaborating with the bullies. He had prepared himself all his life to live out his calling as The Voice.

I would love to be able to say that we all need to push against the bullies and live fully our authentic lives. Here’s the thing tho, it continues to be a risk. For some, it’s more of a risk than others. I will say this, you need to take the risks that you can take, and to stay safe in ways that you need to stay safe.

This week we’ve witnessed Supreme Court Nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson being raked over the coals through questioning in her confirmation hearing. If confirmed, Jackson will be the first black woman to sit on the Supreme Court. I’m praying like crazy for her strength and peace of mind in the face of idiocy and prejudice as she goes through this process. No one should have to deal with what she is going through. She is up to the task and I believe we need to stand behind her.

I also believe we have to stand behind the families of trans-kids, and their care providers, as they maneuver through the prejudice and ignorance they are dealing with. The risks they are taking have become higher than they were before.

For each of us, there has to be a place where we can be ourselves. A place where it isn’t risky and we can bloom. This community, Plymouth, is a place where we practice loving ourselves and each other. A place where we can change our minds about our own direction and give each other grace and room. This is what it means to be a church. We are a community of faith journeying together toward what love calls us to be, which includes being our deepest and richest version of ourselves that we discover ourselves to be. The more we are able to be ourselves here, the more we will be able to be ourselves out there in the world. As we do, we will grow in our strength to support and advocate for others to fully bloom to be their most authentic God-created self. That’s a ministry we can be proud of. One that isn’t based on preserving the institution, but in preserving human dignity, which is one of the most holy and sacred ministries I can think of.

Lenten Catharsis

Biblical Witness Genesis 45:25 – 46:5

The sons of Israel went up out of Egypt after meeting with Joseph and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan. They told him, “Joseph is still alive! He is even ruler over all the land of Egypt.” Jacob was stunned; he could not believe them. But when they told him all the words of Joseph that he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. Jacob, who is also known as Israel, said, “Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.”

When Israel set out on his journey with all that he had and came to Beer-sheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.”

Then Jacob set out from Beer-sheba; and the sons of Israel carried their father Jacob, their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to carry him.

Contemporary Witness “Daughter Of The East” by Benazir Bhutto; Preface (excerpt)

More than a million of my countrymen came out to greet me when I returned to Pakistan from two years of exile in April 1986, catapulting me  into the glare of international publicity. Suddenly I received several offers to write not my father’s story, but my own. I hesitated. It was one matter to write about my father, who had become the democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan and had lasting achievements to his name, and quite another to write about myself, whose most important political battles were still to be fought. It seemed presumptuous. I thought autobiographies were written in the autumn of one’s life, looking back.

A friend’s chance remark changed my mind. “What is not recorded is not remembered,” she told me. I saw her point. Like many in Pakistan, I had experienced the dark years of Martial Law. Unlike many, I had the opportunity to put those experiences on record. It is important that the world remember the repression we in Pakistan had to bear following General Zia’s coup d’etat.

Writing the book has been difficult. It has meant reliving the pain of the past. But it has also been cathartic, forcing me for the first time to come to terms with memories I had been trying to escape. This is my story, events as I saw them, felt them, reacted to them.

Reflection

Let me begin by telling you a little about Benazir Bhutto.

She was the first democratically elected female to rule any muslim country. According to the website, benazirbhutto.com, she was also one of the most influential leaders of south asia. She was born in Karachi, Pakistan and at age 16 she left her homeland to study at Harvard’s Radcliffe College. After completing her undergraduate degree at Radcliffe she studied at England’s Oxford University, where she was awarded a second degree in 1977.

Only two years into her first term as Prime Minister, President Khan dismissed Bhutto from office. In 1993 she was re-elected and brought electricity to the countryside and built schools all over the country. In 1996 President Leghari of Pakistan dismissed Bhutto from office. Her husband was imprisoned. For nine years, she and her children lived in exile in London. 

In the autumn of 2007, in the face of death threats from radical Islamists, and the hostility of the government, she returned to her native country. Within hours of her arrival, her motorcade was attacked by a suicide bomber. She survived this first assassination attempt, although more than 100 bystanders died in the attack. Weeks later, after one of her campaign rallies, a gunman fired at her car before detonating a bomb, killing himself and more than 20 bystanders. Bhutto was rushed to the hospital, but soon succumbed to injuries suffered in the attack.

In her book, “Daughter Of The East,” amoung many other things, she talks about the pain of her father’s execution, as well as the deaths of her brothers. In the preface, she mentions the catharsis that happened for her as she faced the memories she had been trying to escape.

I paired this with the story of Jacob, also known as Israel, finding out that his son, Joseph was alive. For 20 years Jacob thought that Joseph was dead because his other sons lied to him, having sold Joseph to Midianite traders. Jacob refused to be comforted by his sons and daughters saying, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” For at least 20 years he held this grief in his heart and in his body. A pain so deep that when he was confronted by the story that Joseph was alive, at first he could not believe them. But then it seems like he was enthusiastic about seeing Joseph. He says, “My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.” But next in the story we hear God comforting him and encouraging him by saying, “Jacob, Jacob. Here I am. I am God … do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, I will go down with you. … Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.”

Maybe he was afraid that he would die on the way, before getting to see his son. He wanted the healing that would come with being in the presence of Joseph. God assured him he would have that.

Today in our Lenten Ritual we are answering the question, “What are your family griefs about the pandemic?” Family can mean so many different things to people. Grief comes in different ways and for various reasons. A lot of the grief that I have heard, as well as felt, over the years, is the grief of being disconnected. Not being able to gather together with those we love out of concern for making each other sick is a deep grief we carry in our bones. This combines with the risk that something might happen to one of our loved ones, or to us, and we might never see them again. The question that came up over and over was, do we risk getting together … or do we risk not getting together? There is no good answer to these questions. Only one kind of heart-ache or another.

Each of us have had difference experiences – had different losses – different kinds of reunions which were joyous and relieving. We might want to put it all behind us. Forget about it and move forward. One way to really move forward into the future, with those losses as well as the gains, is to face it all. Doing this ritually helps us to mark the time, the place, the sensations, the sights and smells, what we heard, and how we felt.

Benazir Bhutto did this through the ritual work of writing her book. Writing has an interesting ritual all its own which is unique to each writer. I don’t know what her process was, but it provided her a way to set her thoughts into words, sharing her story with us.

These little pieces of paper that we are writing on – or drawing on – might not seem like something very significant. They can be though. When we meditate, when we face whatever we’ve been avoiding because it’s hard or uncomfortable or maybe downright awful, when we face it, it is an opportunity for us to feel our own strength. In this moment we embrace it all, loving ourselves. Comforting ourselves and each other by this shared experience. 

Catharsis is the release and relief from strong or repressed emotions by bringing them to consciousness and affording them expression. These little pieces of paper are the vehicle of that expression. What you write and the act of shredding is the release. Hopefully there will be relief that comes from this, especially at the end when we take these shreds and revive them, remaking them.

What I love about rituals is that they are tangible memories I can go back to, reminding myself in hard times of the moment I faced what I needed to, and then released it to the best of my ability. I can return to the sights and smells and sounds, the tug of the shredder taking the paper, the feeling of all of us in the room.

In times of intense memory related to grief we might forget that we are more than our grief. Benazir Bhutto reminds us that the stories we tell, whether we tell them publicly or on a private piece of paper, free us from being captive to the past. 

The story of Jacob reminds us that when we move forward, our faith moves with us. It might even be our faith itself that helps us move. I hold on to the notion that our Holy Love accompanies us in all our travels – from the ones we make geographically to the ones we make emotionally.

Today, we travel together. Our thoughts and our feelings join in the spirit. Our bodies may quiver, wondering, like Jacob, if we can make the journey. May we feel the assurance from our Divine Beloved that we are accompanied and that at the end of the journey each of us, individually and as a community, will experience freedom and release.

Sometimes It’s Personal

Biblical Witness The Gospel Of Mark 3:19b – 30

Jesus went home and the crowd came together again, so that he and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” The scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” Jesus called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Contemporary Witness Frida Kahlo quote

“I wish I could do whatever I liked behind the curtain of “madness”. Then: I’d arrange flowers, all day long, I’d paint; pain, love and tenderness, I would laugh as much as I feel like at the stupidity of others, and they would all say: “Poor thing, she’s crazy!” (Above all I would laugh at my own stupidity.) I would build my world which while I lived, would be in agreement with all the worlds. The day, or the hour, or the minute that I lived would be mine and everyone else’s – my madness would not be an escape from “reality”.”

Reflection “Sometimes It’s Personal”

Today we’re beginning our Lenten spiritual practice of grief and lament by using a ritual of writing the answer to a question about our grief and lament on a piece of paper and then shredding it. Afterward we will be making new paper out of the old paper. This week’s question is, “What are your personal griefs about the pandemic?”

This question got me thinking about what personal grief does within us. How it changes us and how we are perceived. March is also Womens’ History Month, which we celebrate each year. 

Today we heard a quote from Frida Kahlo. She is best known for her art and for her relationship with the artist Diego Rivera. Her personal life, though, had a lot more in it. She had serious medical issues. She had polio at age 6, which she blamed for her right leg’s lifelong problems. Later in life she was diagnosed as having had spina bifida from birth. There was the terrible bus accident. She lived with pain all her life. Her pain and grief were expressed in her paintings, and also in how she told her story about her life. This wasn’t all she expressed. She celebrated life – sometimes wildly, sometimes in the daily beauty that surrounded her. She was as fully complex as any of us.

In the quote we read she says that she wishes she could do whatever she liked behind the curtain of “madness”. She says, “The day, or the hour, or the minute that I lived would be mine and everyone else’s – my madness would not be an escape from “reality”.”

This conjures in my mind how frequently we have to make excuses for our behaviours or our mindset if they don’t jive with the status quo. I remember in one of my jobs as a young person, I was “excused” for my apparently outlandish understanding of the world because I was a theatre major. Once they found out that the undergraduate degree that I was pursuing was theatre, I was given a pass for being eccentric. I wasn’t trying to be particularly eccentric. I’m not exactly sure what they were going on about. But, I was relieved that they gave me a pass for my apparently aberrant behaviour. I was, after all, a theatre major.

Under the cloak of madness, Frida feels she could find that kind of pass to be completely herself, unfiltered. She could fully express her pain, her love, her tenderness, and her a laughter. Everyone would nod their heads knowingly and remind each other that she was to be excused because, “Poor thing, she’s crazy!”

In our reading in Mark we hear the account of Jesus being accused of losing his mind. His family wanted to restrain him. Some people thought he had lost touch with reality. Which people? The ones he was healing and teaching? Probably not them so much. He was extremely sought after by the crowds, so much so in this story that he and his disciples couldn’t even sit down to eat in his house because there were so many people there wanting to hear him speak and to perform wonders. It was the religious elite who wanted others to think he had lost touch with reality. They accused him of all kinds of things to sway the crowds against him. They got to his family with this message, who were probably already concerned.

At the end of this telling, there is the part about the unforgivable sin. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” What this means has been debated and preached about for generations. It seems to me that it has a lot to do with those who were spreading propaganda against him and the good works he was doing; claiming that his works were evil. Here he is, doing all he can to relieve suffering and to draw people to God, and those who feel like their power is going to slip away from them because of it indict him as being evil. They cause others to wonder if he is in his right mind, and those who think he isn’t seek to control him because they care about him.

Was he mad? Had he lost touch? Or, had he gotten so in touch with reality that his form of expression surpassed understanding to those who couldn’t keep up? This is also my wondering about Frida Kahlo. Was she so in touch with a depth of reality through experiences of pain, love, grief, and tenderness that it was only under the guise of madness that she thought she could express herself?

How about us? After communion we’re going to be doing our ritual. I want us all to answer the question, “What are your personal griefs about the pandemic?” This is not an easy spiritual practice – to look at our griefs and to allow ourselves to lament. But, Lent is not the season to take things easy. It is a good time to reflect on what we might normally set aside for another time …for later. 

Grief is one of those emotions and experiences that feel like we are losing control. Expressing grief through lament, especially when it’s done through deep self reflection, can feel like living in all the pain at once and might seem unbearable. It might be easy to complain about problems and situations, but to lament means allowing your more vulnerable side to show. 

There is a tendency to think that if we grieve we make things worse. And while that might be the case if all we do is meditate on what is negative, active grief helps us to move through the experience rather than bottle it up. Still, it’s hard. It takes work. Internal work. Energy. And in the midst of it, you might feel like you are losing touch with reality. Especially with the personal stuff. 

In the coming weeks we will be asking the question about family grief, work grief, and church grief. Those we might be able to hold out a little farther from us. There might be a few more objective standards to consider with family, work, and church. But personal grief is, well, personal. 

Maybe it’s okay if we lose touch with reality temporarily so that we can get in touch with a deeper more foundational reality. One that is hard to express because it’s beyond words. Maybe you’ll want to draw a picture on your paper. Or maybe stream of conscious words. Or maybe just colours and shapes. So long as it can be shredded in the paper shredder … you do what expresses you the best you can, knowing that you are touching the edges in trying to distill your personal experience into language or shape or colour. What you put on the paper is representative of what you are reflecting on. It isn’t an exactness of your feelings.

Maybe that’s why it can feel like madness. We know we can’t really demonstrate our feelings. We can uncover what we can with the symbols we have like language, art, dance, story-telling, and such. What we convey we then have to trust to someone to interpret. And no one interprets it exactly the way we feel it. Maybe we wonder if even God can get it. Can our Holy Love hear our story and honour it without diminishing it?

That is my hope and prayer. It is part of the foundation of my faith that our Divine Beloved can do for us what we can only touch the edges of for each other. This might be why they thought Jesus had lost touch with reality – because he was able take in to himself, into his soul, the essence of another’s grief and pain. He could bring it into himself and not be destroyed. What a powerful and unrelatable gift.

This Lent we’re going to see how far we can go in trusting Holy Love with the essence of who we are. Holy Love will tether us to the reality we need to be in. Allow yourself the freedom to build your world in agreement with all the worlds, as Frida talked about. All the worlds being vast and complex and able to handle the essence of you and the truth of your experience. Know that it’s the Holy Spirit which leads you, supports you, and loves you in the midst of this spiritual practice. This same Spirit Of Love will help you and us heal from the fragmenting that happens when grief and pain are left to move around inside of us without direction or guidance. It is holy, good, and loving to ourselves to take stock of what is going on personally with us.