You Are Wrong

by Amanda Petersen

I have been noticing a lot of pain recently around being right. Contemplating this I am reminded of an idea that I was introduced to a while back: I am wrong…a lot. I thought the moon was made of cheese when I was 3; I was wrong. I thought the Berlin Wall would be up forever; I was wrong. I believed I was to be a professor of Old Testament studies; I was wrong. And there are some things I believe to my core today that I will look back on and say, yep, I was wrong. Something amazing happens when I allow myself to be wrong. My life loosens up. I have to lean into God more. I’m willing to risk because the goal is no longer about getting it right. Instead, it’s about being willing to be open to the next thing. Being wrong is no longer a failure, it is an opportunity.

Letting go of certainty is uncomfortable, scary, and painful. Being wrong is also very painful and yet, when I practice uncertainty and am willing to be wrong, I find the Divine shows up, relationships are healed, new opportunities appear, and life gets bigger. I have heard the struggle of many “How could I have missed this?” Or “how could I have been so wrong?” And there can be a stuck-ness in this because of the assumption that being wrong is a personal failing, as opposed to asking the questions to work toward growth and self-examination.

I’m not saying one should throw certainty out the window. No one would be able to function without some certainties. It’s more a practice of holding certainty lightly. I find this practice leads to gratitude. I know the sun rises every morning and as certain as I am, I also know that I could be wrong, which makes me grateful it does!

This week, reflect on how much room is there for God to move while practicing getting comfortable with all the wrongness in life. Or practicing calling Mystery into those places of your ‘rightness’ and see what you notice.

Want to talk about it? Come to Dinner and Conversation on Friday.

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

[6] http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/02/19/when-did-compassion-become-partisan-politics/

[7] Ibid.

[8] NT Wright. Simply Jesus.

[9] Audrey West http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=27

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.

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.”

WE ARE BLESSED BECAUSE

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.”

HOW TO BE BLESSED

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.

Shalom.

Are You Afraid of Spiders?

by Amanda Petersen

I was recently reading a story by Tosha Silver about a time when she was in India and attended a fire ceremony for Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and wealth. During the ceremony a huge spider crawled on her hand. She was extremely afraid of spiders so she gasped and swatted it away. One of the priests came over and yelled at her asking what she was doing and then saying it was Mahalakshmi herself coming to bless her.   

This really struck me. How often is the Divine presented in one’s fears as a blessing yet the blessing cannot be received because of not wanting to stay in the fear and see it differently? Tosha later tells of a night where a huge spider was on the ceiling and instead of spinning stories of fear she entered a conversation with it. Looking at the spider as a blessing while also letting it know it can have the ceiling while she can have the bed.   

What would it look like in this season of political and circumstantial uncertainty, which can stir up the most basic of fears, to instead of reacting in fear, one tries responding by interacting with what is most frightening. As contemplatives engaging oneself is the step before engaging the circumstance. Facing fears, (or insecurities, resistance, exhaustion) and all the issues within before just swatting at what frightens us. Bringing God in and asking where is the blessing in this?  

I tried this once when I moved into my home, which had been empty for several months and had very large roaches enjoying the empty space. I am not a fan of roaches and they do cause me to want to run and hide. There were so many I could not just run away and hope they also would disappear. So I asked what is the blessing in this roach?  The answers where numerous! I have a home, there has been a lot of rain, my home is surrounded by beautiful plants and trees, I am free to act in many ways, and I am no longer fearful of roaches. Now I need to say I am not so enlightened that I could coexist with the roaches running all over my home. I called an exterminator. Yet the reality of where I live with all the plant life is that bugs are a part of it and when we bump into each other I am now able to see the blessing.

Taking this to larger issues takes more time and practice. I have to say just asking the question  “What is God’s blessing in this?” has helped me to at least stop and look at my fears. Try this week as we enter a political shift and uncertainty. Let me know what you notice.

If you are looking for help in this area, I highly recommend the Rising Strong workshop on Saturday and Quiet Places on Sunday. The book I was reading is called Outrageous Openness and it is our Intentional Reading selection in March.

Okay, but why?

by Davin Franklin-Hicks 

I remember my 13-year-old self sitting on the altar of a small Southern Baptist church. The altar was brown, carpeted steps. A woman who had shown me incredible kindness sat with me. She was holding my hand. I was wracked with sadness and sobs. She listened to me as I told her about the divorces, the turmoil in my family, the fear that I was not normal (that meant queer, but I didn’t yet have the words for that). She listened. She leaned in. She cared.

After I shared, she opened her Bible and I remember her taking me through “The Roman Road”. I spent most of the time listening for Roman to show up in the story line. The Roman character never made an appearance.

The Roman Road is a fundamentalist evangelical tool often used in explaining the “Plan of Salvation”. I would come to know that well later, but for that moment, I didn’t understand any of it.

This is pretty much how the many conversations would go:

Nice lady (NL): When Eve took that apple and decided to eat from the tree, sin entered the world. We needed a path back to God and we get that through Jesus.

Perplexed 13 y/o Davin (PD): Well, why did God make that tree then?

NL: God wanted us to choose Him. When we don’t we invite sin into our lives and we need salvation.

PD: I don’t get it. If I poisoned candy and put it in a kid’s room, wouldn’t that mean I poisoned the kid if the kid ate it?

NL: blinking with a minorly irritated look.

Our session ended for that day. Two weeks later the nice lady tried again. Same place, ready to dig in, Bible between us.

NL: Okay so please remember that we chose sin.

PD: Yeah, but God kinda made that happen, right? Why did he put that tree there?

NL: Because God wanted us to choose Him.

PD: What? Why?

NL: Because he loves us and wants us to love him.

PD: Then why didn’t he leave out the tree that would ruin everything?

Our session ended again.

We met more and I had many questions:
Why did God make Lucifer if He knew that he would turn into Satan?
Who was Cain afraid of? Wasn’t it just him, Abel, Eve and Adam in the world? Who was Cain afraid would harm him when he was cast out of the garden?
If God made us and the tree of good and evil, isn’t that kinda passive aggressive?
She sighed a lot in those visits.

I was a teenager who just discovered faith community.
I liked the church a lot.
I liked the people.
I liked the adults who worked in the youth group.
I kept coming back and the nice lady kept trying to help me understand why I needed salvation in the form of repentance.

After many sessions with her, I was willing to admit I was a sinner, admit Jesus died for my sins, profess my belief in Christ, invite Jesus into my heart and promise to walk a path of faith, sharing the Good News. This is called a few things in literal, evangelical Christianity: being born again, getting saved, turning my life over to Jesus. Once I was in, I was in. The questions went away and I was determined to be the next Billy Graham.

Much of my theology in those days was slathered with fear and shame. I passed that on to those who took time to listen to my conversion messages. I was going to make sure Heaven was full and Hell was empty.

I was zealous and I was persistent. I was also very scared, brokenhearted, shame-filled and sad. The church kept me busy so my heart didn’t feel so very alone.

I was always angry back then. If you had to find me in a crowd, you could simply look for the kid with arms crossed over their chest, glowering, glaring, guarded and grrrrrr…

All the while I pushed people away, I was super offended when they did not talk to me. Hurt people often long for what they desperately try to convince others they don’t need.

I was creating an emotional wall; I was a teenage emotional construction worker with endless mortar and bricks: Sob the Builder.

There’s reasons for that wall. There’s reasons for everything we think, feel and do. Behavior is to meet a need, or at least a perception of a need. We spend so much time judging actions we rarely think about what is behind those actions. We rarely are compassionate with ourselves.

Everyone’s behavior makes sense to them at the time or else they wouldn’t do it. My fortress was built for a reason. It kept the bad out, but then it started keeping EVERYTHING out.

If I ever write a memoir I will call it “Well, that didn’t work.” And we still try again.

It’s comfortable to think in black and white because there is certainty there. It’s super hard when you let in the colorful world of all sorts of living and needing. It changes everything.

The option of truly being present with someone and learning who they are without an agenda to change them is the only way we get to have honest relationship. I didn’t get that concept for much of my life. I wanted the world to bend, not for me to bend. That’s how brokenness happens, in the not bending and the demanding it be different.

2016 has been awful for me and many I love. It has been the worst year of my life for sure. It also has been a very rich year. I have felt loved more often than not. I have given love more freely than I have in any other year. And 2016 was still the worst ever for me.

I am not someone who believes life’s trials are there to make you a better person. I don’t believe it is orchestrated in that way. I do believe, though, in every situation that sorrow exists, we can see aspects of living we never would have noticed without the sorrow. I don’t believe sorrow exists as a life lesson. I think it’s just part of life and what we choose to do with it determines a lot.

It’s been almost a year since I was harmed through sexual assault and there have been oh so many layers of pain my family and I have walked through. It has been horrendous and it has been illuminating. It has been heartbreaking and it has been healing. For me, what makes it or breaks it is my willingness to engage life in hard times vs run, run, run!

Engaging in life requires some courage when everything within wants to retreat. When that’s my reality I take the absolute smallest inching forward I can muster to just stay in the world, stay in my life. I have to get open, drop the mortar and brick, and choose to live in the elements, responding to life and love as it comes and as I co-create it. Dear ones, we are creating our inner world as we participate in life. I want my inner world to be a sanctuary and refuge.

The idea of refuge reminds me of my younger brother who tells a story that when he was about 19 years old or so, his AC busted and he had to have more windows and doors open at night to keep cool. He did this regularly in the apartment he lived in so he had adjusted and slept well most of the time.

One morning he gradually woke from sleep with the cat on his belly. He petted her, she purred and nuzzles. Then the slow dawning: “I don’t have a cat.” Yup. A random cat decided to sleep on my brother’s belly.

I love picturing this story playing out. It’s awesome, funny, and it highlights my gentle brother who awakes with welcome.

What I really love most, though, is the cat. The cat went all rogue and decided this house was as good as any and my brother’s warm belly was just the stuff this felonious cat needed to get a good rest.

What’s hurting within you? What’s preventing you from welcoming warmth and companionship into the core of who you are? What is this fortress you are building? What is keeping you from the wander and the wonder that may lead to new relationship?  What is the smallest inching forward you can muster today to answer the pain with hopeful forward momentum?

Whatever it is, I promise you this: the pain you feel in that place is made worse with isolation and vigilance. Peace to your precious, scared heart and peace to your amazing, enduring spirit.

We all have the “why” questions. Keep that up! The questions are beautiful and welcomed. The altar is within you as you seek your heart out.

Knowing this and living this is my road to salvation.

Advent in Iraq: An Experience in the Unfiltered Wonder of God

by Owen Chandler

Beloved Saguaro Christian Church,

Greetings! I pray that these words find you well. I continue to lift you in prayer each day, trusting that the power of God’s love, which keeps us connected, rests peacefully within you. For the most part, I am fine. Mercifully, the days pass quickly as we begin the preparations to hand off this mission soon. It turns out that being deployed during the holidays is unideal. Who knew?!? The Army made it look so quaint on the brochure.

Luckily, the mail keeps a steady traffic of support coming into our offices. I wanted to express my gratitude for the two enormous boxes of goodies and the Advent Wreath. It was a huge hit. The irony is that we have all worked so hard to lose weight and get into shape on this deployment. Many of us are risking gaining that weight back eating our holiday feelings with all the stuff coming in the mail. I have started working out twice a day so that I can eat the good stuff with no guilt. There is no way I am going to pass on Christmas cookies.

The Advent Wreath is beautiful. Most of the people who come to our chapel program are part of religious traditions that don’t utilize this worship practice. I must have had twenty questions about it the first week. After so many conversations, I didn’t know what they would think of it. They love it, however. We run stripped-down and simplified services in Iraq, but when I introduce some traditional elements, I have been surprised by how welcomed the practices were. It will be interesting to see if any of these soldiers try to introduce an Advent Wreath into their churches back home.

I will miss the sanctuary of Saguaro CC this Christmas. It is my favorite time of year to worship with you. I tried to recreate some of that ambiance here, but I literally blew up the Christmas tree. It was a pre-lit tree and I forgot to check the wattage requirements. You would have thought that I learned my lesson with the coffee pot from back in June. There are so many things I wish they had taught me in Seminary. I have now added basic electrician skills to that list.

I pray that these next weeks are a true blessing. It is peculiar to lead soldiers during these days as they are conducting the operations of war. There is not a lot of gloss here. This is definitely not a Hallmark setting. In some ways, it has led me to consider Advent anew, free from the presents, parties, and general consumer saturation of the holiday. In the sparseness of this place, I find myself preaching the following theme: Advent is an experience in the unfiltered wonder of God. Within that journey, tragedy becomes the paradox of God’s grace, for out of the brokenness of the world’s despondence the promise of God’s peace is born. It is not the jolliest of sermon series, but there is part of me that thinks it is probably closer to the truth of that historical reality many years ago. Don’t feel too sorry for my chapel goers; I make it up to them by singing Christmas songs instead of Advent songs. It is a little trick I picked up from [our music staff,] Keith Koster and Jeff Myrmo!

I hope to write you one more letter before I leave. If I am not able to do so, then I say with all my heart: Merry Christmas.

Peace,

Owen Chandler

Owen Chandler

The Silence in the Shattered Glass

guest post by Andria Davis, Acting Senior Minister at Church of the Beatitudes in Phoenix, Arizona

In order to enter the main buildings of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, a visitor must walk down the Avenue of the Righteous Among Nations.

Situated in the middle of a large garden, this tree-lined walkway and the surrounding landscape commemorates those many non-Jews who risked their lives and their livelihoods in order to save Jews from the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

As you walk down the Avenue and stroll reflectively through the winding paths that weave through the surrounding garden, you may become overwhelmed with awe as you realize that each of the more then 2,000 trees that line the paths were planted to commemorate a unique person, and that each tree represents the life of one who worked diligently and under great threat to save the lives of countless others.

And as you walk through the garden, you may become overwhelmed with awe as you learn the stories of some of the thousands of names engraved on the stone walls that form the many coves and inlets, and when you hear the many stories of the ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

If you are like me, you may become overwhelmed with awe as you look around you, and you cannot see through the trees and benches and the signs and engravings, through those more than 25,000 markers commemorating those who worked diligently, ceaselessly to save the Jews from certain extermination.

I imagine that of many who walk down the Avenue of the Righteous Among Nations or who take time to sit with names that fill the garden walls, that they are as much overwhelmed by the stories of those remembered there, as they are by their own answers to the question: in the same situation, would I have done the same?

Would I have opened my door to that frantic knock in the middle of the night? Would I have opened that hidden passage in my house? Would I have secretly employed those fleeing for their lives and would I have arranged for their escape? Would I have said yes when the call came, or would I have said no?

A few years ago, as I sat in that Garden, I wanted to so badly to say that I too would have been counted among these who risked their lives to choose good instead of evil.

I wanted so badly to know that when faced with an impossible decision between my life and the lives of many others, the pursuit of safety for the many would have been the only pursuit I could follow.

I so badly wanted to be assured that when faced with the decision between what is right and what is wrong, I would always choose the hard path of righteousness and integrity over the easy path of complacency and status quo.

Above all, I wanted to know with conviction that when the world goes to pieces and all goodness, and all peace, and all love seems gone, that I would follow unwaveringly in the way of Christ, who said as he did in today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, that it is better to sacrifice yourself in the name of justice, than to sacrifice another in the pursuit unreflective, unjust harmony.

In today’s passage, Jesus offers us a black and white way of living. He offers us a stark reminder of the obligations of one who calls him or herself a Christian.

Hear his words:

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” – Mark 9:38-50

For the faithful who strive to follow in the way of Christ, this is a black and white edict that comes to us who live in a much greyer world.

It comes to us in a world where right and wrong do not always appear so cut and dry and where our convictions sometimes have unintended consequences.

It comes to us in world where the small and individual injustice can build like a cancer, growing within us without our notice, that then spreads into the very blood and bones of our societal, religious and civic systems, unable to be amputated from us as we would a sick limb.

As you sit in the Garden of the Righteous Among Nations, among the trees and plaque commemorating the 25,000 brave souls who risked it all, life and limb, to save others, it’s hard to grapple with the thought that we ourselves might not have been so brave.

On the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, there is a quote from a named Martin Niemoller, who was a Lutheran minister in Germany during the Holocaust.

As a young man, he distinguished himself in the Navy as an officer and commander of a German U-Boat during World War 1. He was proud of his country and his service, but after Germany’s defeat in the first world war, he found himself at political odds with Weimar government.

Forced to give up his U-Boat and his office, he, like many Germans, felt like the changing government had abandoned him and all he stood for.

Disenfranchised, he sympathized with and supported the rising Nazi government.

Niemoller went on to pursue seminary and found himself in a prominent church in Berlin, where he was widely supported and his anti-Semitic sermons were well attended.

Quickly, however, Niemoller’s support for the Nazi government began to wane.

But It wasn’t the dangerous and xenophobic policies that were being solidified under the Nazi regime that ignited in him the spark of resistance, it was, instead, the Nazi interference in the life of the church and the removal rights of Christian of Jewish decent that caused him to take action.

It short, it was only when his own rights began to be infringed upon, that he spoke up.

Regardless of his motivations, his actions against the Nazi government were impactful and led to his arrest, apparently under orders from Hitler himself. Niemoller the spent the rest of the war imprisoned in concentration camps.

Unlike millions of others, Martin Niemoller survived the war imprisoned by the Nazis. His survival allowed him to live on into late life as an ardent anti-war activist, who spoke with ferocity about the importance of not remaining silent in the face of injustice.

His most famous quote, which is known in a few different forms, is inscribed on the Holocaust memorial in Boston. It reads as follows:

“They came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, and by that time, no one was left to speak up.”

I saw this quote shared widely this past Wednesday.

Among other things, it was the 78th anniversary of one of the defining moments of the Second World War, an event that is widely understood to be the beginning of the Holocaust as we know it.

On November 9th, 1938 Germans, fueled by anti-Jewish sentiment and supported by Nazi-issued propaganda, went on a rampage of terror that specifically targeted Jewish business, synagogue, and Jews themselves.

According to Nazi totals, 8,000 buildings across Germany were vandalized and defaced with anti-Jewish slogans and slurs. Nearly 100 Jews were murdered. Glass from widows strewn the streets, giving the event the name Kristallnacht – Crystal Night – the Night of Shattered Glass.

Two days later, on November 11, 30,000 thousand Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen.

This act brought to the surface the reign of terror that had already existed in Germany, and would soon be on the forefront of the minds of people across the world.

They say that hindsight is 20/20 – that when we know we now know, we can look back and feel confident about what we would have and could have and should have done.

That when we look back on that day, 78 years ago, we can proclaim boldly that had we known

Had we known that this is what the future held,

We would have stood up.

We would have spoken up.

We would have put our bodies in between rocks and widows,

and used our selves as human shields.

We would have opened our homes and our safe spaces to our brothers and sisters and we would have gathered, arm in arm, linked in front of the rail cars, the tanks and the trucks to do everything in our power and anything at all, to reorient the world toward justice.

It is that 20/20 vision in hindsight tells that it would have been us, doing just what Jesus called on us to do:

That if we had been there, on that pivotal day 78 years ago, it would have been us giving up our hands and our feet and our eyes that our brothers and sisters might have a future in which they could continue feel and walk and see.

It would have been us.

We would have fought and screamed and risen up and joined together.

It would have been us.

We would not have stayed silent.

But two days later 30,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. Over the next six years, millions more would take that same journey. Millions would die.

Martin Niemoller was a Lutheran Minister who devoted his life to follow in the way of Christ. And yet even as a follower of Christ, an ordained minister, he felt sympathy for the ideologies of the Nazi government – ideologies that tended toward pointing a finger rather than lending a hand; ideologies that would exclude people who thought and acted and believed differently than the prevailing power; ideologies that said that ‘whoever is not with us is against us,’ rather than the ideology of Jesus who declares “whoever is not against us, is with us.”

It wasn’t until the communities of which he was a part and Niemoller himself came under attack by those ideologies, that he began to take action against them.

For his life following the war, Niemoller is said to have lived with the guilt of not taking a stand against those forces of evil until they came knocking on his door, when all the networks and systems that were designed protect him and those around him, had been stripped away.

“They came for the Communists,” he wrote, “and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, and by that time, no one was left to speak up.”

On Wednesday morning, I read Niemoller’s quote attached to an article depicting the events of Kristallnacht, 78 years ago. By Wednesday evening, I had read the poem more times than I could count, shared not in response to the historical past, but to the real and pressing present, shared in response to events that had happened that very day.

She was shopping in Walmart. A woman came up to her and ripped her Hijab off her head. “this is not allowed anymore, so go hang yourself with it around your neck not on your head.”

            They came for my Muslim brothers and sisters,

but I did not speak out because I am not a Muslim

They woke up to a note on their car. “I can’t wait for your ‘marriage’ to be over turned.  Gay families burn in hell.” Signed ‘#Godbless.

            They came for my LGBTQ Brothers and Sisters

but I did not speak up because I am not LGBTQ

He came out to his car to find all four tires slashed.

She found hers covered in graffiti. “Go back to Africa you N word, you B word.”

A black baby doll was left in the gutter with a noose around its neck.

            They came for our Black brothers and sisters

but I did not speak up because I am not black.

She was walking to math class at her high school

She was pumping gas

She was getting coffee

She was heading home

“Why aren’t you gone yet?”

“Build a wall”

“Grab her by the…”

“I should kill you right now, you’re just a waste of air.”

            They came for our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our wives.

But I didn’t speak up because I am not a woman.

I didn’t speak up, not for my Muslim brothers and sisters, not for my Black brothers and sister, not for LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

I did not speak up for my immigrant brothers and sisters or my disable brothers and sisters. I did not speak up when it mattered the most.

As Christians, we must remember: they also came for Christ.

It wasn’t because he expressed a theological doctrine or dogma that ruffled the feathers of the powers that be, but because he spoke out for his brothers and sisters:

For the tax collectors and widows,

The prostitutes and the impoverished.

They came for Christ because he dared to say, “you matter” to those that society had pushed aside.

They came for Christ, but by then, Christ knew it was too late.

Jesus gave himself to the cross that no others should have to live and die as he did – that in his sacrifice, he could offer up a different view of the world – one in which all of God’s beloved creation lives in peaceful harmony befitting the kingdom of God.

But in his sacrifice, he did not absolve us, his followers, of our God given purpose in life and faith, that which is our salt and our saltiness.

He did not absolve us of our call to build around us world in which silence in the face of injustice cannot and does not prevail, where the evils xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and sexism are finally and eternally amputated from who and what we are; and a world in which all people are showered with the grace and dignity that is required to be shown all children of God.

You are the salt of the earth, he says.

But if salt has lost its saltiness, what good is then, but to thrown on the ground and trampled under foot. What good is it, if we, as Christians, do not share with the world our Christ-given call to stand behind and fight for our convictions of justice and peace?

You are the light of the world, he says. But what good is it if we should hide our light under a basket so that the world cannot see it and be shrouded in darkness. What good is it, if we do not illuminate a path forward with visions of love and hope?

How will you share your light? How will you season the world with the saltiness of God’s love?

My friends, we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

We are the voices that ring out in the silence.

We are people who stand up to show the world that the Kingdom of God is real, and that peace and justice and hope and love are at its foundation.

It’s time to stand up. It’s time to speak out. It’s time to let our light shine. Amen.

 

Finding Security in Tumultuous Times

by Amos Smith

All of us more or less thrive on a predictable world, where things go as planned. When Brexit happened in Britain and when Donald Trump happened in America it was a jolt to our central nervous systems. And the shock waves were felt throughout the world. The establishment has been rocked.

For me, Bernie Sanders was the omen. His popularity, especially with young voters, was unprecedented. Then when Jeb Bush, who I thought was the strongest Republican nominee, departed the campaign, I thought to myself… “This country wants deep change. It does not want another Bush or Clinton. It wants someone who will disrupt business as usual, someone who will shake things up.” The American people want someone on the margins like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump.

Now I pray that our people, government, and nation will find ways to mend the divisions among people, heal the anger and hatred fueled by the campaigns, create hope where there has been fear and suspicion, and attend to the very real concerns, problems, and needs of people.

We live in tumultuous times. Political storms, storms of climate change, international storms are brewing around us. It is tempting to despair, to feel alone and forsaken. And most of all many feel insecure, like the ground is shaking beneath their feet.

In light of all this I think of the story of Jesus calming the storm at sea (Mark 4:35-41)… In the case of the storm at sea, the waves were crashing on and spilling over into the boat. In the midst of all that Jesus said “Be not terrified! There shall not be a hair of your head that perishes.” In other words, “Yes, there are many reasons to feel timid and hopeless. Yet, in the midst of it all, I will calm you. I will help you find your center of gravity. I will deliver you.”

I was comforted by Hillary Clinton’s conciliar speech on the morning of November ninth. She said (my paraphrase) that no matter how hopeless we may feel; we should never give up the fight. And that in the big scheme of things, our acts of service, no matter how small, are never wasted. They are chronicled and used by God to further the kingdom.

Sitting in the Simple Gratitude

by Amanda Petersen

Gratitude does not need to be complicated. In fact, practicing gratitude for the simple things actually helps one simplify their life. Acknowledging something simple, like breathing, can heighten one’s awareness of the places where things get complicated. This is especially true for one’s spiritual practices. As beautiful as a practice can be, it can become complicated very easily. Prayer lists can grow very long. The sense of ritual can take over. Certain positions or postures, times, and order can complicate to a point where heart of the practice can be lost. Coming back to the heart of a practice with gratitude is a very powerful spiritual practice. Beginning the prayer list, reading, examen, meditation, or physical practice with gratitude for the heart or why of the practice can shift the whole experience.

One of the main points I like to bring forth in meditation is the most important part of this practice: the fact that everyone there chose to come and sit. It is the act of sitting in my opinion that is the important. Whether the mind clears, or one stays with their breath or mantra, or one leaves feeling peaceful or enlightened, there is a nice benefit, yet the real power in the practice is the choice to sit. I believe that because we choose to sit, and step out of the norm or complications of life, the world is literally a different place when we leave. Beginning with gratitude, appreciation  and acknowledging the Source of one’s life changes the practice from one of doing the practice to one of being with the practice.

Beginning a spiritual practice with gratitude takes the focus off of the doing and moves us into the participation and relationship with God/Love/Divine. That is a wonderful place to dwell. It helps one come back to noticing, savoring and to the gift of Life. I encourage you to begin your spiritual practices grateful for the gift of showing up, sitting down, using time, or just breathing. See if you notice anything different in your practice.

I’d like to end with a poem by Mary Oliver from her book A Thousand Mornings:

Poem of the One World

This morning
the beautiful white heron
was floating along above the water

and then into the sky of
this one world
we all belong to

where everything
sooner or later
is part of everything else

which thought made me feel
for a while
quite beautiful myself.

The simple act of gratitude can change the world. A thank you to Diane Owens for the inspiration of this week’s writing.