Christ on the Cushion

by Joe Nutini

When I was a child, my parents sent me to Catholic schools. This was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because I received a wonderful, college preparatory education that did indeed prepare me to go to college. I loved college.  I also loved Christ. Like seriously. I was in love with Christ. From the time, I was quite young, I felt the energy of Christ deep within my heart. It was instantaneous. It didn’t require any understanding of doctrine, bible etc. It was just there.

I became a social worker. My education and the love that was in my heart because of knowing the energy of Christ (and perhaps even angels and other “heavenly” beings) led me to that path. Buddhism increased my awareness of Christ. It brought me back to Christ’s energy and love. It also brought me back to myself, to my own heart and to forgiveness.

That’s where I am right now. To get there, though, was quite the journey. The curse of being in the Catholic school, was that as I got older, conservative and literalist doctrine began to enter my soul as a poison. I will add this caveat before I continue. I understand that for some people, conservative and literalist doctrine and biblical interpretation is what “Saves” them. That wasn’t my experience. Though I respect that it is for some.

When I was quite young, I also remembered feeling like I should have been born a boy. I literally thought that my body would look like my fathers and not my mothers. Somewhere in early childhood, I also learned not to say that I felt like a boy. I just knew it was a “Sin” per the powers that be. Just like I knew that two men kissing was supposed to be “sinful”. I kept it to myself. A secret. Mom and Dad told me I was a girl, so I decided to be one.

As time went on, I became a pro at religion class. I always had an A in that class. I was fascinated by it because I had intrinsically known spirit since the time I was young. I wanted people to explain things to me. I wanted to try to understand what was happening. Sometimes, I would argue or debate with the teacher. I didn’t believe all the stories. I didn’t believe that Adam and Eve were the only humans and they populated the earth. I didn’t necessarily believe that Jesus had to die on a cross. It just didn’t really fit for me. And so, I wanted to learn more. To see what I was missing.

I received confirmation when I “came of age” as a teenager. I believed in Christ and what I felt was a certain spirituality to the universe. I also didn’t want to go to hell, if I’m being honest. Back then I wasn’t sure if there was a hell or not but the adults kept saying there was. I wanted to do the right thing by this energy that was with me through all the troubles that I felt. I wanted to make Christ happy. I did what the church told me to do. It was a beautiful ceremony and we had a party.

At this time, I also became aware of my queer (at that time we said bisexual) feelings. I had been in puberty early and it felt like torture. I didn’t understand why my body was betraying my spirit and mind. I kept it to myself. I prayed for these feelings to go away. It was a sin. The more I did this, the further and further away Christ felt. That energy, that love, that guiding force in my life started to slip away. In hindsight, I realized I had been betraying myself. When I was 13-14, I didn’t know better.

When I was a senior in high school, my best friend and I wrote a feature edition of our school paper on LGBTQ youth. The religion teachers let us give a survey out on sexuality and gender identity. Right before we were going to print, I was called to the “brothers’” offices. They basically said that, “this issue doesn’t exist here.” They meant that there were no LGBTQ people. I told them that wasn’t true. That I was bisexual. IT just fell out of my mouth. It was the most freeing thing in the world. I felt my heart fill with that energy and love again, for a moment. I was told that I was confused, wrong and that if I engaged in “homosexual acts” I could be excommunicated from the church.

It felt like poison. Every fiber of my being rejected their words. I decided to no longer be Catholic.

In college, I began reading about every religion and spiritual belief that I could find. That included new age spirituality and Buddhism. I wanted to find out what was going on. I couldn’t believe that the God they taught me about in school was the same God who created me. Absolutely not. I figured that maybe I was wrong. That there was no Christ energy or holy spirit. So, I studied, I attended various religious and spiritual services and I began meditation.

During those years, I was a mess until I began transitioning. Even after coming out as queer, I still felt so distant from that love I had known as a child and young teen. It felt miles away. Something that was unattainable. When I came out, it felt slightly closer. When I transitioned, my life changed. I meditated and chanted in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I attended healing arts school where this was solidified. I was invited into some native American spaces to learn their teachings.

Yet something was still missing. I could feel that I was in touch with the love of the universe again. And yet, that Christ energy was missing. It felt like an emptiness. So, I began exploring Christianity once more. I spoke with literalists who debated with me, stating that I didn’t understand the scripture or bible. So, I studied it with them, pointing out linguistic differences from my studies in college, debating meaning and syntax. I hung out with Unity and Unitarian Universalists who helped me understand and heal from some of my experiences. I met people from the United Church of Christ who explained their understanding of Christ. I met liberation theologians who, like the UUs and UCC folks, made the most sense to me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

And then I found Shambhala Buddhism. I read the book, Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa, the person who brought this form of Buddhism to the US. He was literally saying everything that I had thought and felt for many years. I viewed a talk about “Jesus as Bodhisattva”, a concept that I had read about before but didn’t quite understand as well before.

So, I decided to take Shambhala classes. I distinctly remember sitting in the first class. We meditated for hours. I couldn’t shake this feeling that it was I who had been blocking myself from fully feeling the world. I had internalized these poisonous messages that I had heard for a good portion of my life.

I breathed in, when I breathed out, I found Christ again. It was a distinct feeling, so hard to describe. Like putting the last piece into a puzzle and being on fire at the same time. The intensity of it lasted for a moment then dissipated. A chunk of the poison left me and in its place, was this gentle love. A love that came from both within me and outside of me.

Today, I continue to work on undoing these teachings that kept me so far away from this Universal love, the love of Christ, and the love or Buddha nature within. I personally believe these are also complexly intertwined and simultaneously always available to me. I still learning, debating, meditating, praying and learning. I often wonder if these things happened for a reason…a journey to build empathy, love and relationship with others.

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

Searching for a life where all is well?

by Amanda Petersen

The foundation of Pathways of Grace is “All is Well”. Every workshop, decision, and person who walks through our doors are imagined from a place of All is Well. Why is this important? Because as I have traveled this entrepreneur path, there are many out there that preach that all is not well. People need to be fixed, my business isn’t making enough or attracting enough, I need more and they are going to show me how to get more. There are some who encourage looking for problems so one can be the master of solving it.

Friends, I have to tell you this was really tempting at first. Yet as I traveled a bit down this road, I began to feel this method was all fueled by lack. As a contemplative this is a big red flag. How does a contemplative do business? Well, that is a long story, so I will condense it down: one begins with the phrase “All is Well”.

This gets quoted from Julian of Norwich often. Yet many people don’t know the full story. This was her 13th showing (or vision) while she was very ill. Before the quote, she is pondering, why does there have to be sin in the world? Why doesn’t God just fix the world and make it nice? How often has that question been raised?? Here is the quote, first with Julian’s thoughts.

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

Then Jesus’ reply.

“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'”

Life is imperfect AND all is well. The great mystery of life. All is well because life is more than circumstances. The world is Loved even in the messy, horrible and scary circumstances. Each person is Loved also.  This doesn’t negate the pain and suffering of circumstances, yet it does negate the mental sorrowing caused by thinking that if only  life were different and there were no suffering. It also invites the question, “If all is well, then God show me how?”

I say all this because as Pathways of Grace offers more workshops and encourages you to seek spiritual direction or coaching, I want you to know this was all planned from a place of All is Well, not a place of “you are not enough”.  All is Well even as you are searching for meaning or going through trauma or looking for a healthier lifestyle. When you walk into our workshops or see one of our amazing spiritual directors or coaches, you are greeted by someone who sees you are enough and you are Loved.

That is the gift we wish to share this year. All is Well in a world or a life that is also a mess. Practice saying “All is well” this week as you look at your calendar, world events or your own life. Let me know how it goes!

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 Three Most Revolutionary Words in the Gospel

by Amos Smith

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. -Galatians 3:28

This verse from Galatians is what made the early church profound – what made it spread like wildfire. In the highly stratified society of Jesus’ time no one could believe that different classes, genders, and ethnicities sung, prayed, and broke bread together. This was unheard of.

In Jesus’ time “acceptable company” was defined very narrowly. For example, it was taboo for a Rabbi to associate with women, Samaritans, or ritually unclean people, among others.

The early church drop-kicked all the purity codes. They learned this audacious behavior from Jesus who “touched the leper” (Matthew 8:3). In my estimation, those are the three most revolutionary words of the Gospel. In Jesus’ time no one ever looked at a leper, much less considered touching one. When lepers came around most people ran, and some pelted them with stones. So for Jesus to “touch the leper” was radical.

Contemporary Christian author Brian Zhand writes “Jesus was trying to lead humanity into the deep truth that there is no ‘them,’ there is only us.”

Most people would say, “Okay I can accept this statement, but there are obvious exceptions, like lepers.” Jesus shattered this exceptionalism of the liberal Jews of his time when he fearlessly touched the loathsome leper. The liberal Jews wanted to minimize factions and to broaden boundary lines of acceptability. Yet, the leper blew away all categories and was out of bounds.

When we experience factions, superiority complexes, power struggles, purity codes, and sibling rivalries, we are mired in the human condition, otherwise known as original sin. If, on the other hand, we stretch the comfort zone and reach out to people on the margins of society, as Jesus did in his time, we edge toward the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, as envisioned by Jesus, stretched comfort zones, even to the point of touching the untouchable.

Someone might have a valid claim to superiority because of nationality, IQ, class, et cetera. Yet, from the perspective of the Gospel, any advantage we may have, should be used to serve the less fortunate. We may possess legitimate authority and power. Yet, according to Jesus, that power is best utilized in service to our neighbors. In other words, the best leaders are servant leaders (Matthew 20:25-28).

The grace the early Christians experienced in their own lives through the radically inclusive love of Jesus they extended to others, not just to their own clan, class, or religious group. The early Christians saw the beauty and God-given worth of each and every person. This made the early Christians extraordinary.

Discrimination against minorities is becoming more common in the United States today. Whenever a minority is discriminated against in America, even a leper, we are called to resist in Jesus’ name.

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.

Buddhism and Christianity

by Don Fausel

Several years ago when I was writing my memoir, From Blind Obedience to a Responsible Faith, I ran across a book by Paul F. Knitter titled, Without Buddha I Could Never be a Christian. Knitter has held the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and has been a leading advocate of globally responsible inter-religious dialogue. His book is described on back cover as “…a moving story of one man’s quest for truth and spirituality authenticity: from the nature of prayer to Christian views of life after death.” He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1966 and granted permission to leave the priesthood in 1975. His book is his personal exploration of Buddhism as a way of dealing with these issues and with blending of Eastern mysticism.

Knitter’s book proposes how the Buddhist perspective can inspire a more person-center understanding of Christianity. The preface of the book is titled Am I Still a Christian and rather than focusing on rigid dogma and rituals, its center of attention is religious experiences, and how a Buddhist approach can enliven Christianity and benefit worship, and social action.

In my naivety when I first read Knitter’s book, I was surprised that Buddhism didn’t have a God! It became apparent that I needed to research more about Buddhism. Knitter suggests we need to become familiar with the Buddha’s first sermon, which he preached sometime around the 500s BCE. The subject matter was The Four Noble Truths, which Knitter states “He (Buddha) preached it shortly after his Enlightenment…” The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Suffering (dukkha) comes up in everyone’s life.
  2. This suffering is caused by craving (tanha).
  3. We can stop suffering by stopping craving.
  4. To stop craving, follow Buddha’s Eight-fold Path (which consists essentially of taking Buddha’s message seriously, living a moral life by avoiding harm to others and following a spiritual practice based on meditation.)

Let me suggest several books and articles that I found helpful in connecting the Four Noble Truths with Buddhism and Buddha with Jesus:

Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, edited by Marcus Borg . In the preface of his book Borg warns the reader that although he is an “expert” in the study of Jesus but, “In my understanding of the Buddha, however I’m an amateur. I do not know the scholarship surrounding the Buddha as I do Jesus.” Having said that, he goes all the way back to a Dutch writer named Ernest de Bunsen who wrote a book in 1880 titled, The Angel-Messiah of Buddhists, Essenes, and Christians—up to the Dalai Lama himself when he wrote The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teaching of Jesus in 1999.

The rest of the book has eleven chapters including: Compassion, Wisdom, Materialism, Inner Life, Temptation, Salvation, The Future, Miracles, Discipleship, Attributes and Life Stories.  Each chapter has at least ten examples of Jesus’ and Buddha’s moral teaching. For example under Compassion on page 14, is Jesus’ speaking about compassion, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” LUKE 6.31. On page 15 is Buddha’s thoughts about compassion  “Consider others as yourself.” DHAMMAPADA 10.I.  Here’s another saying on pages 36 and 37 under Wisdom.  Jesus is quoted as saying “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” LUKE 6. 41.42. Buddha is quoted as saying, “The faults of others are easier to see than one’s own; the faults of others are easily seen, for they are sifted like chaff, but one’s own faults are hard to see. UDANAVARGA 27.1.

Here’s an article, Jesus and Buddha on Happiness that starts out by the 29 year old Prince Gautama Siddhartha (563-483 BC) , who later was called the Buddha (the enlightened one) left his family and set out on a search for the meaning of life, and for lasting happiness. Since he had no God happiness for him was being free from desires induced by suffering (dukkha). Jesus’ answers are very different than Buddha’s when a rich young man sought Jesus directions for eternal happiness. “You lack one thing: go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

The article goes on to say, “Jesus and Buddha agree that pursuing happiness is transient things is futile. But they direct us to opposite solutions. The Buddha say satisfaction is treasuring no thing. Jesus says it is treasuring God. In God we get all things. In no thing we get nothing.”

I found this article in a website titled All Well Within. The article is  The Buddha’s Essential Guide to Happiness. The article starts out by saying, “You don’t have to become a Buddhist to benefit from the essential teachings of the Buddha because they are universal in nature. Moreover, they remain highly relevant to successfully modern life and finding the deeper sense of happiness and contentment you deserve.” Even though it doesn’t deal with both Jesus and Buddha, I thought most of us know a lot about Jesus and this article is worth it. It’s seven pages long, but again, it’s worth it. Plus I learned that “…the Buddha encouraged his followers to carefully examine his teachings and only accept them when they rang true, rather than following his guidance out of blind faith.” That sounds close to my memoir that I mentioned in the beginning of this blog.

I hope this blog inspires you to look deeper into Buddhism. As a present, here is a TED TALK The Habits of Happiness  by biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard who says we can train our minds in habits of well-being, to generate a true sense of serenity and fulfillment. It already has 6,470,020 readers. It’s worth listening to.

Shalom.

Answers Will Vary

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I heard the whispers. I saw the quiet exchanges between the ones in the know. I watched this play out among the most powerful of my peers. They knew something and I was going to find out what that was. Information is power.

I waited.

I knew it was just a matter of time until one of them slipped up and told me what they knew.

Yeah. That’s right.

This wasn’t my first rodeo.

I mean, did they think I was born yesterday?

Sheesh.

They gave in within an hour and I didn’t even have to ask them anything. They came to me as I sat in my converted office which doubled as a jungle gym what with us being in the second grade and all.

The secret was a good one! It. Blew. My. Mind. Each word they shared was better than the last. Ready for the secret?

The answers to the odd numbered math problems are in the back of the textbook. Just sitting there, waiting for us to use them. Talk about a #lifehack, this was golden.

Take a minute to catch your breath. That was a lot to take in.

As a kid who turned in every math assignment with several worn holes in the paper from my  baffled work that had to be erased and gone over again and again, this was music to my ears. This was evidence that I was obviously on God’s good person list with this piece of info! I was blissful.

I put this new knowledge to use immediately, finishing my math word problems assignment in 2.25 minutes, just a mere 27.75 minutes from my usual. Nothing suspicious here.

I marched up, handed that work to Mrs. Johnson and waited for her accolades. I was baffled when I saw her put that red pen to use. She handed it back with a big fat “0” at the top of the page. Looking back I should have likely been suspicious when most of the problems shared the exact same solution which was: “Answers Will Vary”.

Sigh. I may have peaked in the second grade.

There’s a joke meme that I have posted on my Facebook page in the past that reads “It turns out being an adult is mostly just googling how to do stuff.” Most people read the first three sentences when they search something on Wikipedia and that’s it. Most of us take in absolutely overly simplified explanations and act as though we have a PhD on the topic.

Seven-year old me just wanted the boring parts over with so I could get back to doing what I wanted to do. It was a very basic thinking pattern. Math boring; must stop. I can do that by copying all the answers in the book and move on from this moment.

This type of thinking makes sense in a seven year old, but far less sense in a 37-year-old. And yet when I was 37, I found myself wanting the quick answer while I was waiting to hear if I got a position I had interviewed for and very much wanted.

I turned to the internet like it was a magic 8-ball and knew everything. I searched online using this question: “Am I going to get the job?” And I searched this on several different search engine sites as though each may reveal more of my future… the things we do in lieu of feeling always surprises me.

I knew it was silly as I did it. The questioning allowed me to do something with all that nervous energy and I found it amusing. That was the payoff of doing this search. What it didn’t do, though, was yield a definitive answer or help me in anyway.

In my life, I have observed many times that the insistence of an immediate answer leaves me feeling empty when I get it. This is usually because I wasn’t asking the true question that would assist in meeting my needs. I was just trying to distract myself until I knew the outcome. It is a fear-based way of being for me.

Ultimately, the thing I was looking for most that day was an assurance that I was worthy of such a job and that I would be okay if I didn’t get it. Evidently the internet has yet to produce the self esteem and affirmation we long for, available by clicking a link. Give it a year. The internet has been busy with the election, after all.

I am a person of faith who has chosen to walk a Christian path. That’s never really varied for me, even when I lost a faith community after coming out as a queer, gender diverse person, I knew this was still my path. The way I understand and live into the call as a Christian has changed but my willingness to walk a Christian path has never wavered.

I spent most of my early life developing a belief system that I had all the answers and humanity needed me to tell them. I had the solution and they needed it. I have spent the last 16 years of my life letting that go and opening myself to the mystery and wonder that comes with living and being in the world, among each other, seeking love, seeking life, seeking Spirit.

When I do not have the answers, I get to do some things that are pretty great: I get to replace the closed-fisted certainty with an open handed wonderment. I get to hear your experiences and allow them to expand my sense of who God is and who we are in relation to God. I get to stop faking it when I just don’t know what to do with suffering. I get to be authentic and a person of faith.

I used to think that faith was the goal God laid out for me, as though the searching would give me an object to hold up and say “See what I got? Isn’t it shiny? Isn’t it amazing? I win!” Faith was to be obtained.

There was such a massive arrogance to how I thought about the role of faith and my call in that. A few minutes with me back then would have you asking, “Is it getting smuggy in here?” Yea. I brought the smug.

My faith was aggressive absolutism that I lived in as though I was waiting to get to the afterlife and say, “See, I told you!” I have learned that when the motivation is to be right the action I am taking is likely wrong.

Parables are the original word problems for Christians and none yield a direct answer. Jesus used juxtaposition regularly to get us out of the data and into the questions. Faith isn’t the ultimate answer to who God is and who I am to God. Faith was never the destination. Faith is the vehicle of how I get to live with you in the world and how I get to understand what love is and what love isn’t. It’s not to be obtained, it is for us to make use of in  our seeking God.

What a mistake we make flipping furiously to the answers. What a mistake we make thinking the supplied answer was ever the point of the work. What a mistake we make when we allow an answer to snuff out wonderment.

I have had such a sense of relief when I realized the whole point of this assignment of life isn’t in deriving the answer and arriving at faith.

Faith is the pencil.

Faith is the paper.

Faith is the eraser.

Faith is what we get to use to figure and wonder at the questions that come in living.

I want answers often, especially recently for this season I have lived in. Here’s where I hurt myself in that wanting of answers: when I mistake having a stark and clear answer for a spiritual solution, I am left empty. Answers aren’t all that filling or satisfying when I hunger for relationship with God and with others. When I can replace answers with wonderment my spirit is strengthened and bolstered. Wonderment is life giving.

I have found my most honest words and thoughts I have had when faced with life’s questions are on paper riddled and marred with my attempts, stained with all my tries and mistakes. That is the clearest evidence of my willingness to engage in the questions. Those questions are all the same in front of each of us. All the big life questions cut across all aspects of humanity no matter the culture or language. We are all grappling with making sense of the world around us. That’s the work. That’s the living. And I guarantee, if we really do the hard work, our answers will vary. They were meant to by design.

Living in Hope with Polycythemia Vera

by James Briney

An elderly monk told me that faith is a gift.  That explanation satisfied my curiosity about why he became a monk.  This made sense to me, given his history as a grizzled mountain man, who had been recruited off a barstool in Montana, by an Anglican bishop.  The encounter may have been random, but it changed his life.  Polycythemia vera (PV) is a gift because it reminds us of our own mortality.  Currently PV can be treated but not cured.  With rare exception perhaps, there is no remission.  I think of PV as relatively subtle and relentless.  A similar disease took the life of my youngest sister.

A gift is something that is given to us.  Although there is no definitive evidence that my disease came to me genetically, there is a familial cluster that may be random.  My primary care physician suspected my condition on the basis of a routine blood test, that was confirmed by an oncologist.  Within days, I was accepted as a patient by the hematologist who is treating me.  Upon first acquaintance he began appropriate therapies immediately.  That was in 2009.  The reality is that without treatment I may have been dead within 18 months, so I am thankful for the timely diagnosis.

A gift may be played with as an amusement or be of some practical use.  Polycythemia vera is not a playful distraction, but the treatment does require toying with available therapies to keep it at bay.  At the onset of my diagnosis, I felt like I would die within three weeks if I went to bed and pulled the covers over my head.  Until then I had known there was something wrong with me, but I did not know what it was.  My balance, vision and mental acuity were off.  A few months before the first inkling of the diagnosis, I fell down three times in the course of running bases during a softball game.  I dismissed that as being clumsy and out of practice.  It turns out that I had blacked out each time.

When people who know that I am sick tell me I look good, I say this disease does not make a person look bad, it just kills us through an increased risk for heart attack or stroke.  I had a stroke on April 3rd of 2013.  I was not able to speak and my left cheek was droopy.  In the midst of all sorts of tests and evaluations the condition resolved itself.  The miracle is that my wife and the congregation I serve are glad I can talk again.  To avoid speculation and rumors I promised all concerned that I would provide updates, as information about my health is made known to me.

Well into the first three years of chemotherapy injections, and the occasional phlebotomy, I shared with a study group that the drugs I am using have been known to stop working after a couple of years, and that my bone marrow could stop making red cells altogether, instead of too many.  There was a gasp, followed by a woman asking me what I would do if this happened to me.  I said I was thinking about staying limber so I could bend over and hug my behind goodbye. Humor is one way for us to keep from becoming black holes of concern.  We can take the edge off with candid humor that is not coated in denial and by listening to the specific vulnerabilities of the people we know.

The flip side of humor, or a shocking smart remark, is pondering that we are connected with everyone who is dealing with something.  I believe there is more to life than life itself and that life is a journey for the soul.  There are more dimensions than meet the eye.  Prayerful contemplation of quantum and cosmic consciousness is fun.  We benefit when we do not squander our opportunities to engage serious thought in conversation.  It is not useful to give in to fear.  That’s why the gospel invites us to love with all of our minds and all of our hearts, no matter what is happening to our bodies.

Each time there has been a new development in the progress of my disease, I have embraced it as an opportunity to evaluate my priorities.  When I was diagnosed, I decided to do what my doctor advised.  I considered how I was living my life within my means and realized that I had no interest in creating a bucket list.  Instead, I resolved to stay the course I was on by earning, saving, investing and serving.  A difference is that I have become steadfast and intentional about doing such things for others.

Our disease can be liberating.  It gives us a certain focus attached to the perspective that we are not going to live forever; while having clarity and sufficient energy to endure.  That is a gift because it provides us with the choice not to succumb to despair.  We contemplate the eventuality of our own death.  Our doctors think about helping all of us.  I have thought about what it is like for them to lose patients over time as they participate in research and await trials that are apt to hold the key to a variety of cures.  I figure if the scientists and medical professionals can work and live in hope, then so can we.

I do not think of myself as battling cancer.  I think of myself as living longer and feeling better than I would have without treatment.  None of this has to be experienced as a struggle.  It just is what it is.  Faith and belief are not the same things as proof and knowledge.  Yet I believe the very same answers formed in discovery and discernment will satisfy both scientists and theologians.  When I am offered unsolicited advice about diet and homeopathic remedies by well-meaning individuals, I thank them and say that I am open to such things.  Also that I have a doctor who cares about me and that I am sticking with his protocols.

Whatever your faith may be, and whether it is weak, strong or absent, it makes sense for us to participate in our own well-being by keeping fit, and leaving room for the spirit within us that is holy.  When I think about what our doctors are doing for us, I am reminded that Jesus was not being modest when he said: ‘You will do greater things than I.’  At a genetic and cellular level all sorts of things are being surmised and explored in laboratories.  Some of my hope lies with the professionals who are not driven by profit and personal gain.  My doctor could have made more money, and had an easier time of it, had he not been called to serve his patients.  Luckily for me, he decided not to pursue another passion.  When I was wondering what may be next for me, he said: ‘I will see that you get what you need, my friend.’

I had named my youngest sister, taught her to read, and saw that she was able to go to college.  Long before I was diagnosed, I was the donor for her bone marrow transplant. When she died in the wee hours of the morning, I stepped onto the porch of her modest house on a tree-lined street.  Quietly, as her body was taken away, I looked to an ambiguous sky, and said: ‘Okay, God. Whatever else you have for me, bring it on.’  That was not a dare, merely a realization that I could not imagine anything that would be more painful for me to bear.  This is easy, this disease of mine.

Our challenge is to not become complacent or to take for granted what others are doing to be thoughtful and supportive of us.  My wife has been there for me every step of the way.  The pathway to ultimate success in terms of research, remission, and cure is permeated with a sense of transitory discouragement.  What difference does it make?  Will it make a difference in our lifetime?  Recognizing the value of advances in medicine that may be helpful to another human being is a consideration.  But in terms of self-awareness and self- interest, it is important to see there is hope in being alive longer than we might have been otherwise.  And there is hope in knowing the effort is being made to provide us with therapies that are available.

I take no satisfaction in being aware that there are people in the world with our disease who have not been diagnosed.  But knowing that I could be collapsed in an alley from fatigue, or on the streets of a village, town or city, with flies buzzing around, and people stepping over me, helps me to embrace my own situation.  I am mindful that I am living in the comfort of my own home and being cared for by a doctor who has the capacity to persevere.  That’s a big part of what I think faith is about.  In the face of challenges and in the context of uncertainty we do what we are able to do, especially when we do not know what is yet to come.

The probability that I would be diagnosed soon after my doctor moved his practice from Minnesota to Arizona is about as remote as the mountain man advised by a bishop to become a monk.  As rare as our disease is, we are not alone.  I have taken in stride the latest development that my bone marrow indicates progression and that the treatment for me remains the same.  Jesus died not knowing if his life and sacrifice had been worth it.  He drew his last breath thinking he had been forsaken by God and abandoned by the people closest to him.  Because we have doctors who care for us we have not been abandoned.  Because our doctors have hope we have not been forsaken.

*******

Rev. James Briney is the pastor and teacher for the members and friends of Oro Valley United Church Of Christ in Arizona; having served congregations in Goshen, Indiana; Luzerne, Michigan; and Medford, Wisconsin. He has earned degrees in Philosophy and Theology and has held positions of responsibility and authority in the public sector, the private sector, and the church. He has run and won 24 come-from-behind issues and candidate campaigns by relying on reason, information, and facts in an atmosphere of good faith. In 1999, 2003, and 2013, Jim established funds with community foundations to promote integrity and excellence. Dr. Ruben A. Mesa suggested that he write something for patients with polycythemia vera and the doctors who are treating them.  

(7-10-16)  Photo by Lou Waters.