Prayers for Annual Meeting

by Karen Richter

Good day, SWC friends! It’s Annual Meeting time! Like many of you, I am full-up with travel plans, budgets and resolutions, to-do lists, and tiny bottles of hair products. Instead of the “usual” blog article for this first Monday of May, I’d like to share with you my prayers for our gathering in Albuquerque.

Spirit of Life; Spirit of Love – we ask that you cover our Annual Meeting with good gifts:

  • That a spirit of prayer mark all parts of our time together.
  • That volunteers for the hosting congregations have a good experience and feel appreciated.
  • That delegates and guests are welcomed with hospitality.
  • That all persons speaking in the plenary sessions and workshops feel heard and valued.
  • That relationships with one another and with You are renewed, deepened or begun afresh.
  • That we might more fully cherish our covenants with one another.
  • That each person present listens gracefully to the voices around them, especially when there’s disagreement.
  • That we grasp opportunities for celebration and connection.
  • That our inaugural anti-racism training goes smoothly and that lay and clergy participants and participant/facilitators are energized and inspired to further reflection and to work in counter-oppression movements.
  • That travel is a safe and enriching time for those who are coming to Albuquerque by car or plane.
  • That each person attending leaves with a sense of renewal and centeredness around their calling in the United Church of Christ’s setting in the Southwest Conference.
  • That we each travel home safely with energy to work alongside God and our brothers and sisters to further our mission and vision in the world!

Spirit whose name is mercy, hear our prayer! Amen.

Hope in a Child

by Abigail Conley

“I think you have a kid in there,” I said, nodding toward his truck, and taking his empty cart back to the return for him.

“Thank you so much,” he answered, looking relieved.

Both of us were crazy enough to go to Costco in the week before Christmas and just happened to park near each other. I confess, I second guessed taking his cart for him. Mostly, I second guessed because women doing things like that for men in public space isn’t expected. I almost did it as soon as I headed toward the return with my own cart, but walked past him just a little bit. I looked back to talk to him, to offer to take his cart for him. In that split second, I might have seen his hesitation to walk away from the truck where his child was safely strapped in a car seat. I don’t know. I do remember what was expressed more deeply than usual, “Thank you so much.”

I’m quite certain he didn’t know that I’d seen him earlier, along with his son, inside the store. I was sitting at the restaurant, quickly scarfing down a slice of pizza before heading on to my next task. He walked by, between my cart and the wall, pushing his cart with both purchases and son. I noticed him because his son was crying. When I say crying, I mean that horrible version of crying that children do when they’re just done.

I’d taken notice because of the crying, and then I saw a father being a very good father. They had a smoothie, and the child wanted some. As he cried, the father gently coaxed, “Use your words.” Over and over, again, “Use your words.” The phrase is familiar, one often heard spoken by teachers and parents of young children. Those words struck me differently today, though, as the man spoke them to his son.

I thought about them after he left Costco, as I was finishing up my pizza and walking to my car. It’s the week before Christmas; the walk to the car in a Costco parking lot is extra long. I let the please, “Use your words,” roll over in my mind, thinking how different the world would be if we used our words, instead.

My mourning for Syria has been long and deep. A “complete meltdown of humanity” the news says. That might be the best summary imaginable if even half of the news making it to this part of the world is true. I fear we actually don’t know the half of it. My fear as leaders talk of the need for more nuclear weapons is deep, as well. Words, it seems, are always used to cry out for something more, too often, that thing is violence. It seems that’s the go-to answer right now, with no one quite sure how to put a stop to it all.

I don’t know any more about that father than what I just told you. Who knows what he’s like day in, day out. I have hope, though, that this father coaxing his very, very young son to use his words rather than have a tantrum might do even more good with that child in the long run. Use your words, not your fists. Use your words, not a weapon. Use your words, face to face. Use your words first, and finally.

It is the absurdity of the season, after all, that our deepest hope is in a child—a child called the Word, made flesh, and dwelling among us. The child, called Word, brought all sorts of hope along into that manger, including that swords would be beaten into plowshares, and we would not learn war any more. The beauty of that impossibility lingers deep these days, the promise that we will one day put away our many, many tools of destruction.

For today, while I still await the Christ child’s coming, I am comforted a bit by this man and his child. The hopes of this season run deep: the hope for peace; the hope for fear to subside; the hope that our words become enough. To this man who I’ll likely never see, again, thank you so much.

The One Who Gives Us Room

by Talitha Arnold

“You gave me room when I was in distress.” – Psalm 4

“When my mother was diagnosed with cancer,” a friend shared recently, “one of the greatest gifts was the nurse in the oncologist’s office.”

“She had a great sense of humor, and she could make a cold, sterile examining room a place of warmth and even laughter,” my friend said. But even more than that, he continued, “she knew how to hold my mother’s anxiety.”

As the cancer progressed, he explained, “My mother got more and more scared—understandably. She kept asking the same questions over and over again. I knew it was the fear talking, but I was worn out. I’d reached the end of my own rope. I loved my mother deeply, but I couldn’t deal with one more question.”

But that nurse, he continued, “could listen to my mother ask the same thing a million times.” It was like she had a big bowl, he said as he stretched out his arms to demonstrate, “in which she could hold my mother’s fear—and my impatience.”

If I experienced God in that hard time, my friend concluded, “it was that nurse’s deep well of patience and grace. I thanked God every day for her. I still do.”

“You gave me room when I was in distress,” the ancient Psalmist writes. “You have put gladness in my heart . . . . I will lie down and sleep in peace.”

Maybe the Psalmist knew someone like that oncology nurse. Perhaps we do, too.

Prayer

God of infinite patience and bottomless love, thank you for the people who have made room for us in our distress. They have put your gladness in our hearts, even in hard times. Amen.

Who are you listening to when you listen to yourself?

by Karen Richter

A short reflection today – I hope you are able to find something to do for the holiday today that blesses you and the world around you.

I had an interesting and surprising experience recently. I can’t share much about it, because of confidentiality. And honoring confidentiality is helpful to me in this instance, because the recounting of the full anecdote would not be flattering to me. I was asked about what I thought about something, and my first reaction, that knee-jerk, snap decision response reflected a deeply internalized sexism of which I wasn’t fully aware.

And that experience of “What was I thinking? Where did that COME FROM? I can’t believe I almost said that!” got me thinking about the voices in our heads. Our culture prizes the notion of acting on your split second decision… trusting your inner voice… acting on impulse or instinct. But not every voice in our minds is helpful, compassionate, or mature. Our culture is also awash in sexism, racism, classism, xenophobia, and other fear-based responses to Otherness. Despite our efforts, these –isms become part of our conscience, one of many inner voices.

Who do we listen to when we listen to ourselves? by Karen Richter, Southwest Conference Blog, www.southwestconferenceblog.org

Sometimes they’re loud, overpowering other voices from other sources. There are voices from our Christian tradition – voices of acceptance, grace, justice, trust, peace, liberation, voices from our faith communities – voices of love and exhortation and encouragement, and voices from our own personal spiritual experience – voices that whisper of mystery and simplicity.

How do we differentiate between these voices? We test and discern. Our Jesuit brother and sister have much to teach us about this process. We pause, building into our decisions and thoughts a holy gap in which we listen a second time. And when we act on the voice of grace and peace, the voice of God, that voice gets a tiny bit louder and easier to hear.

 

Do the Little Things

by Kenneth McIntosh

Some years ago I and my wife were employed by a publisher producing a series of school books titled “North American Indians today.” We traveled around First Nations recording interviews. Doing so, we repeatedly heard traditional Natives say “Our sacred way involves all of life—not just Sunday mornings.” I always wanted to say “There are many white Christians who practice their faith throughout the week…” I never did say that, though. For one thing, I was doing journalism—certainly not doing missionary work of any sort. Furthermore, after the second time hearing this, it occurred to me that when someone holds a stereotype there’s often a good reason for that.

I’m afraid that for many Christians, faith is indeed compartmentalized. On Sunday morning we hear Jesus’ radical words to redistribute wealth, serve the poor, and eschew violence; but then we go with the flow of a profit-based, status-oriented, violence-ridden culture throughout the week.

Is there an antidote to compartmentalized faith? I see one antidote in the spiritual practices of the Celtic Christ -followers. Their way of life, from the 5th to the 11th centuries, can provide valuable lessons for Postmodern Christ-followers. This is especially true inasmuch as they eschewed the Imperial (homogenous, globalized) branding of Christianity that held sway over the rest of Europe at that time. One of the most valuable perspectives of these ancient believers is that all of life was sacred—all day, all week, all through the seasons, in ever setting—just like Native American indigenous practices.

Saint David (AKA Dewi Sant) brought the Good News to Wales in the 6th century. He had a famous saying, which has made it into modern-day Welsh parlance, “Do the little things.” It was his constant reminder to disciples that becoming a saint, working for justice, and ushering in the Reign of God didn’t consist of big steps and dramatic actions as much as it was comprised of consistency in the every-day, every-hour routines. How they greeted one another, how they cooked the vegetables and how they milked the cow—these were the proof spiritual life. If all of life is sacred then little things matter greatly.

Another example of the importance of little things in Celtic Spirituality is a collection of old prayers and chants called the Carmina Gadelica. In this book there are chants for awakening in the morning, for washing one’s face, for milking, for farming, for fishing, for making a fire, for life transitions, and etc. Whatever a person might do in the day, there were simple chants to sing and prayers to recite throughout the day.

Could you try to connect prayer with “the little things” you do daily? Perhaps a brief prayer for every time you switch on a light bulb, “Light of the world, let me shine in my little part of the world today.” Perhaps a simple grace whenever you raid the cupboard or refrigerator or water cooler for a snack or a drink. Say a quick prayer whenever you encounter someone—in person or via computer—“Christ, may I see you in this person.” Prayers when you leave the home, the office, the car…and so on.

As we live out our faith in the little things, it could have a big impact.

Icon of Saint David at Saint David’s Cathedral, photo by Ken McIntosh

Bad Theology, Good Riddance

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I have loads of bad theology. It’s rotten. It reeks. It’s spoiled. It’s bad. I came by it honestly, though. I wasn’t rooting around in another person’s garden to get it. I lived amongst it and couldn’t even tell that it was so rotten. I don’t think it would behoove us for me to display it here as though I am posting my lunch on Instagram. I think it would help to just say, “There is a lot of rotten stuff here and it needs to be cleared out for some new life.”

Back in 2008, I spent a week at Desert House of Prayer in Tucson, Arizona. I like to call it DHOP and borrow the tagline, “Come hungry, leave happy”. I chose to enter into silence for that whole week with not really any agenda besides an openness to God. I brought some books along, primarily Marcus Borg and Shelby Spong. Their words merged within me, creating space for questions I had long stopped asking. I prayed a great deal that week. I hiked, even getting on top of a huge rock that was next to impossible to get down from easily. This is  indicative of how I have lived much of my life, actually, setting out for a stroll and encountering unexpected “adventure”.

Borg and Spong (who I lovingly blended into the word Bong for that week) made room for me to think, talk and explore who Jesus was to me. I had spent the seven years before unpacking who Jesus wasn’t and I really hadn’t done much more than that since. I thought the church that I came from, for all intents and purposes, owned Jesus. I thought they were right that I was unacceptable. I thought they had the ability to determine insiders and outsiders. I didn’t consciously think these thoughts, mind you, but I lived my life as if they were true.

Now, here I was, in silence, no external voices to tell me if I was right, wrong, or crazy. The last three days I only had silence as my companion. I even refrained from reading more of Bong (it’s growing on you, isn’t it?). I was aware of an aching, deep void that was left in the dissolution of friendships from the church I once adored. The aching deep void that God could not be accessed by me anymore. Here’s the beauty, though. It is in voids that God speaks and creates. It was in that void that I began to ask questions and seek Jesus once more.

Let me be clear that I do not have anything profound to say about who Jesus is after this soul searching. I don’t really think we need to have yet another voice on the topic entering into the “Nah-ah” and “Uh-huh” debate that gets played out all the time. This isn’t actually about the theology that I ended up embracing. This is more about the unexpected grace I experienced when I became willing.

Over the last three days of my time at DHOP, I cried a lot. I wrote letters to people I love and who love me. I wrote letters, too, to the people I loved who rejected me in the name of God. I held space for the really hard stuff and found that as I did, it started lifting. It wasn’t a tangled mess of anxiety, sadness and anger anymore. It was becoming just an experience that I had, not the only experience I ever had which is what it had felt like before. As this clearing happened, I was able to access love, goodness, forgiveness, kindness again. I prayed for the people who had rejected me and  I actually, finally, meant it.

The last evening I was there, I sat on the front porch with my eyes closed, just enjoying the sound of the birds, the gentle breeze, the freedom from city noise. As I sat there, I heard someone gasp. I opened my eyes and not even a foot away from me was a beautiful, perfect deer. The woman who gasped was on the sidewalk about three feet away. Neither of us moved. The deer did not look at all frightened. She gazed back at me gently. I began to cry without realizing it, just silent tears pouring down my face. She moved on from us and went back toward the desert area. I looked at the stranger, made friend by a powerful moment we had just shared, and all she said to me was, “Wow!”

I have found that once I am willing to relinquish the places within that are causing decay and pain internally, there is not much else I need to do except be present with my God and present with creation all around me. When I am experiencing openness of heart, generosity of spirit, kindness of thought things just happen. I become the deer, I become the stranger, I become the silent one in waiting. It feels as though I am bearing witness to my own life in these moments rather than being the agent that controls and launches them.

I have been struggling again with parts of theology that are life-snuffing versus life giving. It comes in an ebb and flow for me, this realization of theology that hurts. A dear friend of mine shared his own experience with recognizing a bad theology he had that was impacting his choices daily. I relate to that, the underlying moral imperative that is neither moral nor imperative. In the spirit of willingness, I get to work on clearing the bad theology out. For me, this means honesty in prayer, honesty in writing and honesty in talking. This work is not easy, there are reasons some may never attempt it. For me, though, it just hurts too much not to work on clearing it out.

Here’s what I do know to be true and it is the driving force behind the hard work of excavation: All it really takes is willingness. That’s really it. A recognition that it hurts and a willingness to simply just let it go. Because you see, dear one, there’s just something about willingness that grace can’t get enough of.

That Voice

by Karen Richter

Do you know the lyrics to Amazing Grace?

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.

Some folks in my faith community don’t like ‘wretch.’ And I see their point. For too long, the church used shame as a weapon, particularly against women, to encourage compliance with moral norms. But are we, in fact, wretched whether we like it or not?

I’m a big fan of Disney’s The Lion King. With its wonderful music and animation, Shakespearean themes, and redemption narrative, there’s a lot to love. At one point in Simba’s journey, he experiences a vision of his dead father. The message of Mufasa is short: “Remember who you are.” The strength of this vision compels young Simba to return to his family and assume his rightful place. Cue “The Circle of Life”.

The message Simba needed to hear, “remember”, is a common refrain in the Bible. Remember, you were once slaves and sojourners. Remember, you are the people of God. Remember, you are part of the body of Christ.

One of the best expressions of this remembrance is in the Psalms:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.

On the one hand, what are these puny humans that our Creator is mindful of our existence? And yet, we are just a little less than divine, crowned with glory and honor. In other words, ‘wretch’ and daughter of God!

So the problem (to circle back around) is not that slave trader and clergyman John Newton thinks that we are all wretches. Simultaneously, the problem is not that we in our human arrogance think of ourselves as the pinnacle of creation. The problem is that we have such difficulty holding both ideas in the proper tension.

Wretch, yes!

Crowned with glory and honor, yes!

On good days, on days of amazing grace, we remember. Thanks be to God!

The Gentle Rocking of Peace, Part 2

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

We are called to love. We are called to love those around us. What about this, though: Those around us are who we are called to love.

This removes the fantasy element of all of this. Now we are dealing with names, dates, places and times. We are dealing with life in real time. This is a different discussion all together because it is the marrow of life, the relationship aspect of our dwelling together. And it’s where everything can get messed up. There are so many moving parts that often require intention and care.

Anne Lamott says that we are on this Earth without a manual because this is forgiveness school. Wouldn’t that be something? If my purpose on this Earth was to be able to forgive? My access to self-forgiveness and my access to forgiving those around me often get in the way of my call to love. Now my ability to recount every wrong that someone has done is amazing. Where others may have athleticism, I have this down pat. If the Olympics offered resentment as a sport, you’d want me representing you there! And I am certain I am not alone in that. I am certain we could spend just a little time observing the world around us and find some Olympic quality resentment. And we don’t even have to observe the world around us; we can simply observe the world within us.

This is lived experience. Lived experience is often far different from imagined experience. It is in the lived experience that we get to have access to realities that change the very fiber of our being. Those around us, right now, are who we are called to love.

The recounting of wrongs, resentment embracing and the tit for tat lived experience does not allow access to grace. It allows access to what is due, not what is healing. A lived experience in which we keep record of wrongs and the score card limits our own access to grace. There is something so life affirming in affording someone else grace when the score card is full. In my own spiritual development, I have recognized that when I turn toward forgiveness and choosing love, I am turning toward that in my own life as well. I open that door to you and suddenly that door is open to me. I have access to a lived experience that before was completely blocked. I have access to the very love that I long for because I have offered it to another.

Richard Rohr speaks eloquently on this topic in his book, “Breathing Under Water” which is his description of choosing a life lived in spirit. He says this, “Grace will always favor the prepared mind.” It is not that grace isn’t extended to all. It is. Grace is all around. The love of God is all around. Our ability to have access to this grace and love is often in direct proportion to our willingness to turn toward love.

I lived in South Africa in the late 90’s. I was a 7th grade school teacher. I moved there at age 18 so I was a baby teaching babies. I was having it out one day with one of the students, Akhona Mvandaba. We had argued and argued and argued that year. I offended him. He offended me. Our score cards were oh so full! I don’t remember what triggered the moment of change, but something did. He said something that I didn’t like and we were on our way to the principal’s office. He had his angry face on and so did I. We were huffing up the way when our path was blocked by a Mama. Her name was Esther.

She asked why we were angry. I let it out, listing his bad parts that were just not acceptable. Then he let it out listing all the reasons why I just was not good people. As we took turns, Esther took my hand in her hand. She then reached for his hand. We continued as she held our hands. She began to say “Peace. Peace. Peace.” I responded to Akhona’s last sentence with furvor and anger. She started to rock with a sway, side to side, “Peace. Peace.” It went back and forth as she swayed. And the quiet began to rest on me. It began to rest on him. Peace. Peace. I cried. He cried. It was such a hard year. “Peace. Peace.”

She blocked our path to anger and spoke peace into our beings. And something changed fundamentally. There was no anger left, just sadness at all the moments we didn’t love each other. We swayed with her and the gentle rocking presence of God rested on us. Peace. Peace.

Those around us are who we are called to love. As Richard Rohr so eloquently put:

“Grace will always favor the prepared mind.” But then he continues, “Maybe we can sum it up this way: God is humble and never comes if not first invited, but God will find some clever way to get invited.”

Look around. The invitation is right in front of you.

Peace.

Peace.

Image above: My students at Valley Dawn Christian School in Willowvale, South Africa. Akhona is in the back row second from left. –  Dax

The Gentle Rocking of Peace, Part 1

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

We are called to love.

The belief in God has never been something that I have struggled with before. Even as a young child, it was just something that made sense to me. I was able to see a flow in life. I had a pretty clear understanding of kindness, compassion and love. I gravitated toward those who operated in these fruits of the spirit. My grandma would whisper messages to me as she rocked me to sleep and I would absorb them. She told me I was precious to God. She told me God loved me. I believed it without a second thought. What this gave to me was the belief that I was in this world for a reason and that reason had something to do with being loving.

I have a dear friend that describes her faith in a way that is simply brilliant. She has given me permission to use it publicly as it is something that I love so much and I come back to quite often. She describes herself as a children’s Bible thumper. Isn’t that fantastic? When she expands on this more she talks about really getting behind the God of the children’s Bible. The children’s bible has an overarching message. You were created by God and you are so very loved. Nice.

Then we hit puberty and we are all lost. Just utterly lost; rough stuff. Nothing that was is now. Along with that, suddenly, the message changes. The children’s Bible gets dark. It becomes more like Grimm’s Fairy Tales. For many faith communities, all of our desires and thoughts and wishes become somehow bad in some way; something to be denied and certainly to be controlled. The children’s bible will no longer do! For me, this is when intense shame entered the picture for me. My sense of belonging also became challenged as I walked toward the fringe, afraid if those people who say they loved me really knew what I thought and felt, I would be cast out.

The children’s bible version of life is often something that we can get behind. It doesn’t take too much to get us there. We seek to be loved and it feels mighty good when we experience love ourselves. I recently found out from a segment on 60 minutes about dogs that my dog likes to look at me. I have a pit bull mix that I have had since she was teeny tiny. She stares at me. A lot… Like all the time. I honestly have felt burdened by this because I thought she wanted something. Does she need to go outside? Does she want to play? What does she want?

It turns out she just wanted to stare at me because it is enjoyable to her. When she stares at me, her brain releases oxytocin. We like oxytocin. So we do things that will allow us to feel that chemical change. We are called to love and that is a good, good thing. We desire that feeling of love. It moves us and changes us to love.

So we are called to love. Yes, we can get behind that.

Let’s add to that now. We are called to love those around us.

One of the perks I have found in coming to church is that I get to imagine doing “better”, whatever better looks like given the topic at hand. We get to sit in our pews and chairs, listen to a message and apply that message to imagined circumstances. We can have imagined conversations where we put into practice some fundamental spiritual discipline. I can just see myself being loving next time I encounter whatever made it difficult last time. I am going to rock being kind and forgiving at the office on Monday. It’s going to be good.

I can create scenarios with a sense of ease in my head where I am either the hero or I am the regretful one, ready to do it different next time. But I am still imagining. I am running through scenarios, making minor promises to myself that I will do it different next time. I will really do it well.

We are called to love those around us. There is a small human that I know and love. He has been on this earth for about a decade. He is the son of two of my friends. Since his first years of being able to express himself, he has expressed a deep love for others. His ability to empathize is simply incredible. One aspect of him that is true over and over is his desire to see equality and fairness throughout the world. He has just been baffled by America’s reticence to accept all adult couples who desire marriage. It simply did not make sense to him. In June, when his mom told him the news that marriage equality had happened in America, he was thoughtful. And then his response a moment later, “Mom, now they have to be able to marry in the rest of the world.”

We are called to love those around us and the world was all around him. We can imagine as we sit here, loving others. And I do believe that is a powerful tool. The ability to imagine ourselves in a situation is often a step in living into that situation. So, as we sit here in this moment, reading these words, we are likely able to get behind the concept that we are called to love those around us.

Let’s sit with the spiritual gift of imagined experience. Spend time holding onto that and let’s check in again on Wednesday because there is more to this than a simple imagined experience. There is lived experience.