They’d Had a Tough Week

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons,
Designated Conference Minister

It had been a tough week for Jesus and his posse.  As Robert Brown observes in Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, the realm of God wasn’t “exactly appearing overnight.”[1]

In a sobering moment, King Herod Antipas arrested Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, and beheaded him.

After fleeing north to escape Herod, Jesus asked his closest friends, “Who do people say I am.” And then more pointedly, “Who do you say I am? ” Peter nails the answer with, “You are the anointed one, Son of the Living God.” Jesus used the moment to clarify for the group what Peter’s answer meant. 21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.[2] And then, if that wasn’t scary enough, Jesus adds, “If any [of you] want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [after] me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? [3]

“Jesus’ followers had never seen crosses dangling over the stomachs of princes of the church, writes Brown, “but had seen plenty of crosses used as instruments of torture and very, very slow death.”[4]

How does one hashtag that? Yes, it had indeed been a rough week for Jesus and his followers.

One might think that being on a mountain with Jesus, and seeing him shining in all his glory accompanied by the Lawgiver, Moses, and the Proclaimer of Justice, Elijah, both dead for millennia but now somehow alive, would have captured the attention of John, James and Peter.  But they were exhausted. They’d had about as much ‘rough week’ as anyone could bear. So they laid down into as much sleep as they could find. There was a time for staying awake with Jesus but this was not it. This was a moment for surrendering to tired, and their feelings of enough.

After the mountain-top-experience in which Jesus took on the physical identity that is the real Son of God’s due, Jesus and his three climbing companions descend into the reality of a man whose soul is pierced through with the pain of caring for his epileptic son, the seizures of whom have thrown him into the fire to be burned, and rolled him into the water leaving him nearly drowned. His last hope had been Jesus’ followers waiting at the foot of the mountain for Jesus to come down again, but they hadn’t been able to cure the boy of his illness.

What is a few moments of Jesus shining with God’s glory when your cousin and best friend had been set up to be murdered, when your child faces the possibility of death everyday from his illness?

Being God’s anointed, the Son of the Living God, doesn’t mean much to anyone but the anointed one if all you do with it is enjoy it on the mountain.

Being on the mountain with God’s anointed and witnessing the glory of God doesn’t mean very much to anyone but you if all you want to do with the experience is relish the perks of having had the vision.

This story’s meaning is all about God’s glory – the anointed One through whom that glory broke into the world, and the ones who witnessed God’s glory in the anointed One – coming back down the mountain and into the lives of families like the family of the epileptic boy, or the martyred John the Baptist. God’s glory only means something if we do something with it.

Those few moments of glory give meaning and reliability to the words that accompany them – words from God. Did you catch God’s words about the experience? “This One is my beloved; listen to him.”  Did you hear what Jesus said? “Rise up and fear not!”

Four other SWC pastors and I were at the ICE  building in downtown Phoenix [5]
when Guadalupe Rayos reported for her check-in appointment and was detained on Feb. 8. She was deported the next day. She was the test case for our new immigration rules for undocumented non-violent offenders. That was a tough week for the Rayos family; I saw it on their faces. It was a tough week for every family who has an undocumented loved one with a traffic ticket.

Earlier that morning the SWC announced that it joined other faith communities in filing an amicus brief in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of two Iraqi refugees denied entry into the US.  Ahmed Darweesh is a husband and the father of three children. He worked for the US military and his life was in danger in Iraq due to that relationship. The wife and son of Hader Alshawi, the other plaintiff in the case, were threatened because of their perceived ties to the US. Both men had been granted legal entry into the US only to arrive and be detained and threatened with deportation. That was a tough week for Darweesh and Alshawi and for every refugee awaiting entry into this country.

Next week the SWC becomes a friend of the US Supreme Court because we have befriended Gavin Grimm, a Texas High School student denied access to school facilities because he is a transgender youth. This week was a particularly tough week for Gavin and every trans high school student because rules protecting them and granting them access to facilities appropriate to their expressed gender were rescinded by the President.

Pastors all over our conference, and throughout our beloved United Church of Christ, have shared stories with me that everything they say seems to be heard as political speech. Maybe the examples of people having tough weeks sounded political or even partisan to you.

“Empathy seems like an act of defiant resistance,” wrote John Pavlovitz in a recent blog , “and in many ways, it now is. Maybe homeless refugees and sick children and the working poor and black lives and fewer guns and universal healthcare are indeed now ‘Democratic talking points,’ he continues. “And if they are, then you should take a long look in the mirror, let your knees hit the floor, and ask Jesus just why that is. Maybe some repentance is in order.”[6]

Before anyone accuses any preacher of being political because she or he proclaims those talking points, remember that those very same talking points are in every sacred text known by humanity.

“When Did Compassion Become Partisan Politics?” asks Pavlovitz.[7] Yes, when did compassion become partisan politics?!

You see, beloved, the people whose stories I shared with you a moment ago are at the foot of our mountaintop experience here this morning, and they’re waiting to see what we will do with the glory of God we’ve experienced. As dark and terrifying as things might get, in the deepest, worn out, tired, lost, scared and confused moments of our lives, God’s voice still breaks into human experience inviting us to listen, to rise up, and to fear not.

NT Wright, in his book Simply Jesus, invites us to

“suppose, just suppose, that the ancient prophetic dream had glimpsed a deeper truth. Suppose there were a god like Israel’s God. Suppose this God did after all make the world. And suppose [God] were to claim, at long last, … sovereign rights over that world, not to destroy it … or merely to “intervene” in it from time to time…, but to fill it with … glory, to allow [us] to enter a new mode in which [we] would reflect [divine] love, [divine] generosity, [the Creator’s] desire to make it over anew.

“[That] might mean a living God really had established … sovereign rule on earth as in heaven and was intending to [put] an end to the fantasy of human sovereignty, of being the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul, of humans organizing the world as though they were responsible to nobody but themselves.

“Perhaps the real challenge of Jesus’s transformations within the material world is what they would imply both [spiritually] and politically.”

In the transformation/transfiguration story of Jesus on the mountain, “Jesus seems to be the place where God’s world and ours meet…where God’s new creation intersects with ours.” What if the gospels are not about “how Jesus turned out to be God.” What if they are about how God is becoming more and more “ruler on earth as in heaven.”  Isn’t that, after all, how Jesus taught his followers to pray? “Your kingdom come, will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” [8]

Sometimes whole churches get caught up in their own moments of glory – past days on the mountain top – as if those glory days were an end in and of themselves. Like Peter sometimes congregations want to enshrine them, build booths of veneration to them, and never let them go.

But in today’s texts Jesus and his followers are new players in the old, old story of God’s encounters with God’s people.[9] And so are we! Moments of glory like this one today are only valuable if in them we are transformed in ways that bring God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s compassion into the time and space of suffering and marginalized ones, in ways that heal and bring hope.  The story of Jesus’ transfiguration/ transformation invites us to spend our lives stepping into both God’s glory and human suffering in ways that connect one with the other in healing hope-filled ways.

All this is more than supposition, beloved. We are not following cleverly devised myths, wrote Peter. We are in relationship with the powerful and majestic person of Jesus – the Child of the Divine One – who is trustworthy and gives us the strength to do what God has always invited God’s people to do: make God known in the world. That’s how this season of Epiphany comes to a close. And on Wednesday Lent begins, a season reminding us that there are tough weeks ahead of us, weeks filled with crosses and costs. “It’s time to listen, rise up. There isn’t any reason to be afraid.” Amen.

[1] Robert McAffee Brown. Unexpected Eyes: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. P. 118ff

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:24–26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Robert McAffee Brown. Unexpected Eyes: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes

[5] Immigration and Customs Enforcement


[7] Ibid.

[8] NT Wright. Simply Jesus.

[9] Audrey West

An Open Letter to All the Strangers

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

To the strangers who have crossed my path:
I have been racist.
I have been prejudiced.
I have been wrong.

I dismissed you.
I didn’t know your name, but I acted as though you were less than me.
I felt a surge of anger that wasn’t about you yet landed on you because you were nearby.
I stopped listening to you the moment you did not agree with me.
I was judgmental of you before I ever met you.
In my effort to dispel stereotypes, I forced one on you.

I forgot about your humanity because I was afraid to be vulnerable.
I had told myself stories about you and then I believed them as if they were true.
I acted like I knew something that I didn’t because I was threatened by your knowledge.

I slammed doors in your face if you dared to interrupt with a knock and a message.
I decided I mattered more and determined you mattered less.
I lied to get my way and you suffered in the process.

I averted my eyes when you clearly just needed to be seen.
I honored fear more than love.
It took mass destruction and brokenness for me to realize you are human and vulnerable, just like me.

I resented you.
I demonized you.
I even sometimes hated you.

You deserved better from me.
You have been the stranger that I have encountered all through my living.

While I cannot find each one of you to say I wish I had done it different,
I will see you in all the strangers that cross my path.
And I will be open and loving as I should have been with you.

Your Friend,


The Story of the Ashes

by Abigail Conley

I confess, I’m struggling with the idea of Lent this year. It’s likely the onslaught of news right now, from deportations to Jewish cemeteries desecrated. My early morning ritual of reading the news is no longer a pleasant way to wake up. If I’m completely honest, though, that’s why I need the ashes.

On Ash Wednesday, if I’m preaching, I tell the story of the ashes. Fresh palm leaves, dried palm leaves, and ashes are placed in a box. Kids are invited to come stand at the front so they can see, too.

It’s a terrible story and it’s a beautiful story, this story of the ashes. I’m sure you know it: the leaves were once green and beautiful, used to welcome the future king. We used them on Palm Sunday, shouting out, “Hosanna!” By the time Ash Wednesday rolls around, the leaves are faded, dry, brittle, and long past the time to be thrown out. In fact, one year, the landscapers did throw mine out before they could be burnt. Assuming the palms survive the landscapers, they are, indeed, burned just as trash is (or used to be). We put trash on our bodies to remind us of our mortality, and as a sign of repentance.

Yeah, the story I tell in worship is a bit more elaborate, but you get the gist. I reread what I use in worship to tell the Story of the Palms. The story’s simplicity and profundity get me every time. This year, though, a few lines that I wrote several years ago now hit especially hard: “But, God told Joel, as bad as this all is, it’s not too late. Come back to me—repent, is usually what we say. Repent, God says; you can always come back to me.”

It’s God’s truth, not mine. It’s God’s truth, “You can always come back.”

The hope in that truth remains deeper than any other I carry; it’s a truth we don’t experience in human relationships. I could sing a country song about “when you leave that way you can never go back,” but that would reveal more about my misused brain space than anything else. I do remember a children’s sermon by a lay leader in the church I was serving at the time. She took a hammer, some nails, and a piece of lumber. She talked about the things we do to hurt each other. With each thing she named, she hammered a nail into the wood.

Then, she talked about forgiveness, and pulled the nails out one by one. Of course, the holes were still there. Of course, even with forgiveness, the scars are still there.

Some days, I am so aware of the scars. Some of them I caused. Some of them I didn’t. All of them might end up a little more tender, a little less healed, than I thought they were.

There are scars from the break-up with the person I later ended up marrying. There are scars from the girl who commented on the size of my butt in high school. There are scars from the man who hit on me while his wife and baby were sleeping in a nearby room. There are scars from neglecting to give a woman food as she sat in my office crying about her poverty; I had forgotten there were bags of food for the food bank just outside the door.

How long could we sit and name our scars?

No matter how well adjusted we become, no matter how many hours of therapy we participate in, the scars remain. Maybe, in our human relationships, we have a few places we can always return to, but they’re not the same. Often, they’re not as good as we remember. It’s a lot like sleeping in your childhood bedroom when visiting over Christmas; the return isn’t as sweet as you hoped. In our broken humanity, we can never fully reclaim what we lost.

A deep hope remains: God gets it right. The tenderness of the scars disappears. The pain caused by what was broken dissipates. This forgiveness is deeper reaching, more thorough than we ever experience from each other.

That is the story of the palms: our lives are caught up in God, from beginning to end. And we can always return to God—no exceptions.


by Davin Franklin-Hicks

There’s a quiet that comes over me lately. It’s not something I am used to as, until recently, I likely only experienced it a few times in my 38 years of life.

The first time I experienced it I was in 1991 as a kid at camp. I did not want to go to camp, it was my first year of trying it out. I anticipated two things: I would be rejected constantly and/or murdered in the woods. The fear of rejection came from seemingly endless lived experiences of rejection. The fear of murder came in equal parts having viewed Psycho and Sleep Away Camp.

I was neither murdered or rejected. Yay!

Camp was one of the experiences I cherished the most in my life. It was safe and wonderful. We sang by campfires, for the love of endorphins! The night was chilly so we huddled up and just enjoyed the way our voices sounded with other voices. My voice had never felt more full than when it was joined with the person next to me as we experienced the belief that love does exist and it is ours to have, it is ours to give.

That stillness was a result of action. We were very brave to go to camp when we didn’t know if it was safe enough. The opening of our hearts and willingness to risk was met with wonderful connection and peace.

I have chased that feeling to no end.

Yet, that stillness is with me a lot lately. I was going to tell you that the stillness is not a result of action, but I am rethinking that as I write.

The stillness comes for me on the heels of moments in which I was not attempting to invoke it.

It just arrives in moments that I really need it. What I am recognizing in this moment, though, is it has a lot to do with a decision I make regularly to turn toward life rather than away.

Life. I have a friend who says this to me when I ask how he is: “Oh, you know, livin’ life on life’s terms.” I hear that in some recovery work I do. He says that with a lot of honesty. He is one of the people that taught me about the vigilance needed to remain sober. He truly lives life on life’s terms in a visible way. That’s the turning to life rather than away from life.

I’ve been away from you a bit. I had a pretty steady flow of participating in life through writing and sharing with you for the last couple of years. I recently, though, have a lot less words for life, especially when my life has moments of feeling unrecognizable.

Here are some words to put to it and we’ll see where we go from here.

Bone Pain
Laid off

Anyone feeling the desire to turn to these words? I haven’t been. And yet… need overwhelms wish, so would you mind turning toward these words with me? It’s much easier for me to turn toward life on life’s terms when I see you are with me and when I see I get to be with you. I wonder if that might be the same for you, too.

Since June 2016, I had been having headaches. Headaches were a part of life for me since I was little so that wasn’t new. Migraines were especially bad after a traumatic brain injury I recovered from in 2003.

These were different, though.

I had been adjusting to having a chronic health condition I learned of in February 2016 and, as many readers know, I was also recovering from some pretty awful trauma as well. I chalked these headaches up to that.

Then came the bone pain and that was severe. I noticed it when my wife gently touched my shin and I about came unglued. I felt like she had hit me with a hammer. My body felt brittle and breaking. It actually was breaking with these tiny fractures in cluster areas. I was more exhausted than I had ever been in my life and it felt like it was worsening.

While I denied this being something to worry about, my doctor didn’t. She had an inkling. She followed that inkling and then the news of cancer, specifically Multiple Myeloma.


Winter 2016 we added the word cancer to the list of “What the heck is happening?!?!”

My first thought was that I was going to go through yet another name change and call myself Job because, I was clearly living someone else’s story.

Deep sadness.
Incredible fury.
Loss of self.
Loss of function.

Yet, still a call to turn toward life and not away.

Speaking of Job (well, in a homograph sense, anyway), I lost my job in January 2017. Laid off after 16 years of work was astounding and hard. I was too sick to know what to do.

That level of insecurity makes the body and bed at odds so sleep becomes impossible. As the bed invited rest, my body refused and the tossing and turning of unrest took over in nearly every part of me. With some help and support, I was able to secure another position in the company I love. People showed up. We developed a plan to be able to live within significantly decreased means we are still implementing.

What is turning toward life for me?

Answering my phone when I feel isolated and scared.
Answering a text from someone when loves me and who I love.
Answering an offer to heap love onto us.
Answering my wife when she says “What are you thinking?”

That’s what turning to life is, allowing life to continue and my participation in it is necessary.

Dear ones, I am so tired. I have never known this level of exhaustion in any other aspect of my living. It’s beyond measure. We have to create so much room now for rest that it can feel isolating. Rest, though, is a turning to life. I just have to keep standing back up after it.

I think about death a lot more than I ever have. I was very aware of mortality before all of this. I had a belief when I was younger that I would suddenly just die and I expected that to happen when I was young. I would just be dead.

As I healed and grew into who I am today, I just figured I would be alive until I am 92. I never thought I would be sick. It never entered my mind.

Sickness and death has become an intermittent pre-occupation for me this last year. I am afraid of dying. I am afraid of my wife experiencing that loss, of my precious son losing another parent (that alone infuriates me more than anything else). It comes and goes, my pre-occupation with it. When it goes, it leaves behind that stillness I was telling you about.

You can likely see why I am rethinking my original thought that the stillness that rises in me and washes over me happening without action on my part. It does take action. It just isn’t immediate.

The stillness comes from choosing to turn toward life when life is really not palatable. The frequent, often difficult, turning to means we get to experience a stillness that cannot be crafted. That stillness comes from the absolute refusal to believe the pain of life is more true and more available than the absolute love and nurture of life.

The stillness.

I want to take your hands and show you, pass it to you.
It’s like your hands and feet thawing in front of a fire when you come in from the chill to the bone cold.
It’s the covering up with your coziest blanket knowing the moment you are in is for rest with nothing else you have to do.
It’s like feeling utter exhaustion and realizing how amazing it is to truly rest.
It’s warmth when all your body can do is respond to cold.
It’s comfort when you forgot how good it feels to truly just be.
It’s your best nap. It’s the best book you read. It’s the song that expresses that thing you just didn’t have the words for.
It’s living life on life’s terms and realizing that was the best thing you could have ever done with your sacred life and heart.
In the stillness, clarity comes.

If I can share anything that would be true for me since all of this pain flooded into my life, it would be this:

We do not have to do anything to die. Dying needs no assistance at all; it will come when it comes. Death has a 100% success rate. It’s got this — it really knows what to do with zero coaching.

Life, though, must be nurtured, loved, grown, tended, guarded, celebrated, wanted, welcomed, received, given.

Death comes unbidden. Life comes only by invitation.

And I really love life. Still.

The Meaning of Blessed

by Don Fausel

I live in the Beatitudes Campus in Phoenix, Arizona with 600 other residents. And whenever someone would ask me how I was feeling, which is often, I used to answer something like “pretty good” or “not bad” or just a plain “okay”. But recently whether I was in the elevator or waiting in line for lunch I decided to answer “I’m blessed” and more often than less, I would get a response from them something like, “…that interesting I never thought of that”. Sometimes I might hear a statement like, “I am so blessed to have children that live so close to the Beatitudes!” or “We’re blessed to live in a country of such of freedom and opportunity.” I don’t usually hear someone say something like, “I’m having problems with my health issues. Do you think I missed out on the blessings, others seem to have been given?” Why do we often associate being blessed with positive situations like absence of problems, or wealth? Like “I must be blessed I don’t have any problems…or I must be blessed to have been born in such a rich family.”


As most of us know, the Beatitudes, also called the Sermon on the Mount, are teachings of Jesus about being blessed and are recorded in the gospels of Mathew (5:1-10) and Luke (6:20-23). They are a call to us as a way of living that can bring true happiness and peace. Beatitude is Latin for “an abundant happiness”.  Each of the Eight Beatitudes begins with the word ‘blessed’… The Greek word is translated as ‘blessed’ which means extremely fortunate, well off, and truly happy…to live the Beatitudes are to be centered on God and God’s desire for our life.”


I’m going to use the title above HOW to BE BLESSED to go through the eight beatitudes as the gospel of Matthew uses them since Luke doesn’t contain all of the beatitudes. The title above offers suggestions for reading each of the Beatitudes.  “… you might look into your own heart and examine your feeling towards them. I think you will find that you need a rather humble, almost a childlike attitude toward each one of them…” It also recommends that Jesus gives His individual “…gifts of the spirit and even gives the very gift of faith itself to show you His love and presence…”

  1. Humble yourself as Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3).

According to the words in the article “poor in spirit” it mean not finding pleasure in yourself/your life, and though you have been taught to be self-sufficient and proud of your reasoning and independence: still you may become smaller in your own eyes. If you are ready to depend on God’s will for your blessings—not ignoring God and not managing your own life and not making your choices all alone, not to be limited by “self”, then you are ready to be blessed.

  1. Repent, be sorry for your bad deeds and be willing to change for better. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4).

Ordinary activities of life do not bring real joy, not like God’s love and hope does. Daily life may leave you thinking: ‘If only I had___(fill in the blank); it leaves you feeling your regrets, for what has been lost: lost peace, joy, hope—and you may find yourself with ‘a broken spirit’—a hurting attitude about life. Regret your past sins such as damages to others—and the time that may have been against or ignoring and lacking God’s blessings.

  1. Be unassuming, non-egotistical. “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

Jesus described himself as: ‘I am meek and gentle. ’He was able to handle conflict, insults, crisis without egotism. ‘He got it all together.’ He said that ‘the non-aggressors would inherit the earth; eventually receive the unearned gift of being a sister or brother of The King in The Kingdom of Jesus.

  1. Seek right ways with an appetite for good. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)

Most people imagine themselves pure. You never heard, ‘I did that to be mean and foolish.’ You need to make righteous choices for your own sake. It makes it easier. Righteousness is the food and drink of your spiritual health: free from guilt, shame and sin:  depend on God’s promise to grow his righteousness.

  1. Show Mercy. “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

Inhumanity of one person against others has always been a problem in history. To the point that history reveals selfish, inconsiderate, and cruel—oppressing habits that cause poverty, slavery, being disinterested in social instability, not working these things out charitable mercy, but great unresponsiveness instead.

  1. Be pure through faith. “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” Matthew (5:8) Cleanse your mind: clean up your act and in the fullest sense as God himself removes your desire for impure thinking and impure ways of acting. God purifies you. Seeing God, knowing him as your Father (by being in His presence) is the blessing promised in this beatitude.
  2. Be a peacemaker and be especially blessed! “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called ‘the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

Love unconditionally—treating the other as one would like to be treated, if the two roles were suddenly reversed: So be kind to your enemy. Just let revenge stop now! Peace may be found by doing something as simple as giving a difficult person something you would think he likes. Peacemaking brings God with His peace and harmony into your life.

  1. Accept Persecution. “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)

Some bad news—‘persecutions’ if you are righteous—but don’t worry! You will be blessed with the benefits of the Kingdom of Heaven. You are different if you are in Christ. This threatens those who don’t understand life’s basic spiritual life. You have put God first!

Here are several different viewpoints. The first one is a video about thirty minutes by Kate Bowler talking about her book Blessed: A History of American Prosperity Gospel

Another is What it Means to Be Blessed by God. This is five page article by Dr. David Dewitt.

And this is a website Discover Real Joy When You #BlessALife that starts off with Matthew (5:16) “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.” The whole website is worth checking out.


Skateboarding As Prayer, Meditation

by Greg Gonzales

My skateboard started to wobble, the axles twitching right and left on a whim all their own. I was still rolling forward at speed downhill, but the board got so squirrely I had to jump off and land in a run to catch my fall — and failed, miserably. As my right foot hit the ground, the force and speed shot the foot backward and sent my shoe flying off behind me. Then I tried to catch myself with my left foot, with identical results. I managed to plant my feet two more times, sock-bare, in a half-second period before I fell to my hands and knees, sliding five or so feet across the asphalt. At least, the locations and lengths of dangling flesh would have suggested so.

Because of experiences like that, skateboarding has become my favorite way to pray, to learn and connect. As a pantheist, I believe God and the universe are one in the same, and that by being alive in the universe, we’re part of God, experiencing itself, suffering and pain included. So my prayer is one of participation, of celebration as a participant of the divine whole. Plus, skateboarding comes with a lot of harsh-learned lessons I won’t soon forget.

Zen Master Dogen pointed out in his metaphysics that all things are Buddha-nature, or impermanent. The living and inanimate are all expressions of this nature, one of impermanence and change. Mountains and bodies of water transform over time, eroding and flooding and widening or shrinking with the earth and weather. The wood shavings and dust that grind off the tail of my board when I pop it, and it drags briefly across grains of rough concrete, are a testament to Buddha-nature in my daily life. Though it retains a familiar feel under my feet, my skateboard is never the same from one second to the next. The scars and scabs on my body speak the same truth. All things change, and my skateboard reminds me I can’t escape that. We have to let go.

Part of skateboarding is letting go and pushing forward through chaos. Falling hurts like hell, but no one masters 4-foot airs and McTwists their first try. A single trick might take six hours to land the first time, or several sessions of six hours over the course of several months. To get a new trick, I have to figure out each individual mechanic, each moving part, and put them together in physical harmony, while working through exhaustion, frustration, bruises, and soreness. At the same time, I have to learn how to fall efficiently so I can get up faster and hurt myself less. I let go of my safety and of my usual conscious mind to focus on a single moment, and that’s where the prayer is.

A skateboard trick and a Buddhist meditation have more in common than someone might think, certainly in terms of focus. Walking meditation in Buddhism is a meditation of action, one in which the method involves observing the world directly, in the midst of bustling daily life. The meditator feels how the foot gives in to the shape of a stone below it, the motion of the leg as it swings, how the arch of the foot grips the stone from heel to toe, and how the bones and tendons move together to transfer weight to propel the body forward. The meditator becomes aware of each movement, each tendon pull, how each moment gives in to the next without skipping a beat. Now imagine the mechanics of an ollie: The skater is crouched, body curled up like a spring, waiting to release its energy; one foot has toes pressed on the edge of the tail, and the other foot sits near the middle of the board, weight also on the toes. Once the trick begins, the skater transfers force from the hip, through tendons in the thigh to those in the calf and ankle, then the foot and toes — at the same time lifting the opposite foot up, to push the tail into the ground and pop the nose of the board into the air. The raised foot then slides across the griptape on top of the board to meet the nose, while the leg of the lower foot is brought upward; as the front foot meets the nose and the back foot jumps from the ground, the entire board is brought to level in mid-air, along with the skater’s body. This simple jump-see-saw motion gives me a chance to watch myself fly, to break mental boundaries, to observe my body in alien motion, to connect with the physical beyond basic experience. Both the walking meditation and ollie tell us about the infinite complexity contained in each and every moment, so long as we pay attention, and this paragraph hardly touches the long list of details to notice.

Skateboarding turns pure-function and visual environments into artistic ones by repurposing objects. Where most people see a curb painted red and thinks not to park there, a skateboarder sees a red curb and thinks about the slickness of that particular paint, and how easy it is to grind across it. Some people might see a tree trunk that’s split and grown into separate trunks, forking off, and give it a quick half-thought before their knowledge of the tree fades. Skateboarders see that tree, and then wonder if they can jump between the trunks; they check to see if there’s enough room behind the tree to get speed, enough space to land on the other side, and if there’s a good angle nearby for a filmer to capture the trick. In skateboarding, a “nice-looking” corporate plaza or a wash behind Fry’s becomes a place to jump, stomp, flip, scoop, and generally dance — on ledges, rails, steps and stairs, embankments, hubbas, gaps, planters… skateboarding adds to these dead objects a layer of life, a second layer of meaning and possibility in mundane, cold, boring places.

The latest discoveries in quantum theory suggest particles behave differently when we observe them. If that’s true, then each and every particle within every object interacts with us on fundamental levels. Even though I’m not quite sure what that entails, exactly — I’m no physicist — it seems to make for good evidence that all things are inextricably connected. As we interact with our environment, our environment interacts with us, and we get to participate as individual parts of it.

With that in mind, we could say just about any activity can be prayer, so long as it’s an intentional attempt to communicate with a divine realm or power or being or presence — our prayer just depends on what or who or where we think the divine is. If it’s right in front of us, then interacting with our immediate world in any way could be effective. Skateboarding is my way, or my dance, to celebrate that interaction. Some people bow their heads and utter a thank you, some chant, some offer animal sacrifice. I skate.

Love and Politics

by Amanda Petersen

Love has many different definitions and ways of looking at it.  As I look at some of these definitions of love one consistent appears.  Love is about expanding.  Expanding compassion, expanding perspective, expanding One’s heart, expanding circumstances, expanding vulnerability, expanding risk, expanding complication etc. etc.  In order to love there is some invitation to expand.

It is taking a world possibly built on safety, security, and knowing, and being thrown into the unpredictable, vulnerable, and stretching space.  This is the case whether one loves themselves, a puppy, partner, God, or a total stranger.  And this may be the challenge of why so many would rather not love.  Love is messy and it takes the person into uncharted territory.  How can one do something they don’t even understand or know about?

The conversation of love comes up a lot at Pathways of Grace.  The most consistent way it is brought up is in regards to the current political climate.  Some wonderful hard questions are coming up.  “How do I stand up for what I feel is important and right without making those who disagree ‘the Other’?”  In other words “How do I love?”  It also comes out in others ways.  “How do I stay with my faith community and stay consistent with where I believe God is taking me?”  “How do I take care of myself when it will disappoint those around me?”  “How do I get started with a relationship with the Divine?”  All of those questions hold a piece of “How do I Love?”

As a spiritual director, I have no answer for the questions other than keep showing up and lets listen to your inner wisdom together.  The energy of love I have observed isn’t in the answers but in the willingness to expand into the unknown of Love.  Somewhere in the willingness to show up to love, God’s love mixes in and does something amazing and beyond whatever the individual could dream up.  The Universe’s love mixes with the desire to love and something beautiful comes out. Love may not be about answers but the willingness to explore.

Right now I am seeing the need to come together and wrestle with the messiness of love.  To be open and allow the something bigger of God to mix in and open our hearts to expand in ways we never imagined.  A place of unpredictability, vulnerability, stretching and Divine Love.  If you are looking for ways to expand in love this week try coming to Dinner and Conversation on Friday or Quiet Places with Sandy Kenger on Sunday.  If you are looking to have a place for someone to hold space as you show up to Love we have amazing spiritual directors and other practitioners.  Pathways of Grace is committed to providing a safe place to practice and explore what it means to be a loving presence in the world.

This week look at your own “Love” life.  Spend time showing appreciation for those who gave you the space to learn to love and expand.  Take the time to connect with the Source of All Love with a heart of gratitude that the expansion of Love is endless.

Please share your thoughts on how you love.

Why did you go? An experience of Standing Rock as a white queer person.

by Rae Strozzo

sky at Standing RockA dear friend in Berkeley sent me Facebook message one evening saying that she felt called to go stand with the water protectors at Standing Rock and did I want to go with her.  “No” was never really going to be the answer, but I definitely had to think about what I was agreeing to do. After several meetings and a week of prep – including research, prayer, meditation, meetings, and just trying to discern my role and reason for showing up there, I left on election night with a group of six friends to go to the Ocheti Sakowin Camp on the bank of the Cannonball River just outside of the Lakota Sioux Reservation at Standing Rock.

I have a deck of cards on my altar that a friend  in Georgia gave me thirteen or fourteen years ago. It has images of the Buddha from all over the world and from many lineages. I pulled a card from that deck for our trip. I pulled the only card that has no image. It has this word, sammasati, which means remember. This is a portion of the dharma that goes with this word:  “The last words of Gautam Buddha were sammasati-“remember.” In a single word, everything significant is contained. Sammasati. Remember what is your inner space. Just remember. . . Just for a few seconds sit down with closed eyes to remember, to make a note of where you have been, to what depth you have been able to reach:  what is the taste of silence, peace?  What is the taste of disappearing into the ultimate?  Look in. And whenever you have time, you know the path.  Just go again and again to the inner space so that your fear of disappearing is dropped, and you start remembering the forgotten language.  Sammasati. . .

There is an exercise in Buddhist meditation practice where two people sit together. One person simply asks the same question over and over and the other answers it each time it is asked.  The dyad is designed to pull the questioner into deep listening and compassion. The person answering is exploring more deeply the complexity of feeling and experiences of what is being asked. Standing Rock felt to me like the call of this questioner, and I was the one trying to answer.  I was asked over and over during the prep to go and during my time in Standing Rock – why are you going?  Why are you going? Why are you here? What is your intention? Why are you here? What are you doing here? The answers are an ever-evolving response.

Why are you going?
A friend asked me to go.Standing Rock NoDAPL
To help.  NOPE! To be in solidarity. To see my settler language and to try and decolonize my responses.
To lament.
To be with other queer people.
To show up.
Why are you going?
To learn.
To pray.
To meditate.
To ride in a van for sixty plus hours with people I love.
To NOT get arrested.
To make phone calls, send texts, to check Facebook.

Why are you here?
To hear the wind.
To follow the water.
To sit on the ground.
To smell like campfire smoke.
To pound in tent stakes.
To hold my breath.
To wait.
Why are you here?
To chop onions.
To paint banners.Standing Rock art tent
To connect to bosses, partners, friends, chosen family, moms
To meditate.
To be in ceremony.
Why are you here?
To talk to a Buddhist monk at the sacred fire.
To stand for the first half of the pipe ceremony with the women and for the second half with the men.
To hear the elders call for Two Spirit Nation to take their place at the water ceremony.
To smell sage.
To cry.
To have no words.
To watch the supermoon outshine the floodlights over the pipeline
Why are you here?
To not know.
To not understand.
To hold stories and songs in my heart that were a gift to hear and to know that they are NOT my gift to give.
Why are you here?
To learn that Two Spirit is not just a beautiful way of saying LBGTQ.
To NOT see burned out cars, barricades, or militarized police.
To see community.
To see peace  – not to bring it.
To join prayers – not to create them.
To live into story – not narrate it.
To learn from elders and follow their lead.

Zubian, a two spirit elder, said to me:  “ I have been transformed before. Others are here for that transformation.”  He was speaking of a young woman who had pulled him out of the way of a speeding truck meant to hit him and stop him from praying at a direct action. But it was clear he meant more than just her.

Why did you go?
To follow the water.
To sleep on the ground, listening to the calls of prayer, and drums, and drones, and helicopters, and wind, and flags.
Why did you go?
To shout Mni Wiconi and mean it.
Why did you go?
To protect.
To have hope.
To be surprised.
To remember.

Image credits: Rae Strozzo.

Grief and Hope

by Karen MacDonald

When I wrote my last blog entry a few months ago, I was “speechless.”  So many of us were reeling from the national election results.  We were heartbroken, appalled, angry.  We were/are grieving.

I have also known deep, gut-wrenching personal grief in my life with the disruption of a cherished relationship.  Much of my speech then was moaning and sobbing.  Thank Goodness, that dark period turned out to be a womb and not only a tomb.  While I looked over the brink into utter despair and lifelessness, I emerged with a spiritual awakening into the indescribable gift of Life.  

Valerie Kaur has prompted us to consider “…what if this darkness isn’t the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?  What if America is not dead but a country waiting to be born?”   To paraphrase her image, this chaotic, life-threatening period in our communal life could be a tomb and a womb—grief and hope.

The grief may include the death of optimism that missed the depth of fear and pain that always lurks below the surface of what appears to be social progress, that always paints the lives of those suppressed/oppressed, that always tinges the views of those afraid of losing position.

The hope is that we have today—Life has graced us with sun, Earth, breath once again.  We get to live, we are indeed from and of Life itself.  Regardless of how things turn out, the hope is in this question, “How do I want to express Life today?” —and in how we try to show our answer.

What’s in the Sauce?

by Karen Richter

Sometimes I feel like I write a SWC post for this blog and half of the sentences end with question marks. Today is going to be one of those days.

One of our greatest gifts is the capacity to wonder, to ask questions, to remain curious and open to new knowledge throughout our lives. Right now, at Shadow Rock, we’re talking on Sunday mornings during education and spiritual formation time with activists in the community. It’s great to find out more about different issues, of course, but we’re asking wondering and exploringmore about their journeys…
what brought them to the field in which they’re active, how they stay motivated, what they do for self-care. I don’t yet know if we’ll find that activists in different fields have common experiences.  Maybe we’ll know more by the end of the month; in the meantime, we are listening lots. 

Yesterday’s guest, Kelley Dupps from Arizona Planned Parenthood, was passionate and thoroughly engaging (and much appreciated!).  He used an interesting word to describe his work in education, LGBTQ equality, and reproductive healthcare: COMPULSION. He gave a sense of something beyond passion for social change: a feeling that he was engaged in this work because he couldn’t do otherwise.

In the same session, a participant relayed their frustration at conversations with closed-off, closed-minded relations and acquaintances. Some people, we all agreed, simply were not able to listen to new information and hold their own opinions loosely. These folks’ abilities to entertain another person’s point of view and consider the long-range effects of their own views were, at the least, disused and rusty from neglect.

How does this happen? What kinds of experiences make us who we are and when do these experiences happen?

This is a fun thought experiment, something that those of us with curiosity about such things like to discuss over coffee. But the stakes are high, my friends.

As our congregations work with childrenwonder child and youth, it behooves us to find that secret sauce that forms our young people into curious, open, faithful humans.

What’s in that secret sauce? I’m working on it, y’all*. I suspect that the recipe includes some of the following, in different ratios for different families and in different congregations:

  • Training and real practice in discernment
  • Consistent exposure to spiritual disciplines of meditation and centering prayer
  • Connection to creation
  • Involvement of faithful adult mentors
  • Experience with the joy of service and justice work
  • Safe space to talk about all of the above!

The world needs our theology of inclusion and grace more than ever. Let’s keep talking about the best ways to pass that gift on to the next generation.

*When I’m feeling particularly earnest, my Southern accent comes out… even in writing.