Several years ago now, Kathy Gillam was instrumental in organizing a conference on compassion at Stanford, hosted by the medical school and its Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. The conference presenters included two great modern champions of compassion – the Dalai Lama and Karen Armstrong. At the time, Karen Armstrong was touting her evolving work with the Charter of Compassion, a sort of semi-religious creed, based on the Golden Rule. In Adult Spiritual Formation, Dan Cudworth led us in a study of the Charter. Last year the Satterlees and I read Into the Magic Shop, an inspirational memoir by James Doty, the director of the Stanford Center, about the origins of his own understanding of the connections between the brain and the heart in shaping and guiding our lives.
Thus we see that compassion has become a surprisingly popular topic of thought and conversation in a world like ours so often characterized by competition, success, accumulation, greed, bullying, enmity, and hatred. Hopefully there is a recognition, a growing one, that unless we learn to look out for one another and for the planet, prospects for the future are grim and perhaps even slim. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a lovely idea but come on. Get real. You have to take care of number one first, right? Well, maybe if you’re especially generous, you could make the focus of living you and yours. But that’s the extent of it.
On the short list for today’s worship service was an old hymn from the early twentieth century revivalist tradition. The hymn didn’t make the cut, but listen to some of its text:
Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
Abide in Him always, and feed on His Word.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
Forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.
I suppose it sounds slightly sentimental and a little dated, but I wonder if there isn’t still truth in its urging – “Take time to be holy.” How many holy ones are here today? Raise your hand if you consider yourself holy. No takers? I wonder why? What does it mean to be holy? What do you hear when you hear that word?
H. L. Mencken described Puritan fundamentalism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” There really is something to this. Religious and political thinking that robs people of their freedoms to live and think freely stands in direct contrast to our Baptist heritage. It’s no wonder Roger Williams got kicked out of the Puritan communities in his quest for soul-freedom. We were reminded of this in Pastor Rick’s sermon on Sunday as we reflected on the Hebrew holiness codes of old and Jesus’ newer vision of radical love: “Love, which is at the center of holiness, is not a downer. We need to remember that. We break down the wall between the sacred and profane because an ever-present God demands it of us. Taking on holiness does not allow us to put up walls of superiority and judgment.”
How might we make decisions about how we govern ourselves, our communities, our families, and our own lives if we take the route of free-love rather than limiting-fear? Self-expression, conscious exploration, and social engagement flow from this space of freedom and compassion, they also teach us more about the world and its Maker.
What does God require? Well, really, who cares? We’re free, independent people, right? We get to live our own lives however we please. What does God have to do with it?
“Who cares?” might be the cynical response of one who finds the “God question” irrelevant and believes he is on his own in this world. Even if there is a god, where is he? What has he done for me lately, let alone what has he done for this poor old world? Looking at the state of the world today, even people of faith may question God’s presence, let alone God’s relevance.
To ask the question, “What does God require?” And to care about the answer, of necessity, means that there is a relationship with God on which to ground the concern. If I am not God’s person, if we are not God’s people, then concern for God’s requirements is meaningless. I suppose I am stating, maybe overstating, the obvious, but I don’t think it hurts to be reminded that, for the most part, we gather here week after week because we are or want to be God’s people. And if that’s true, what God requires of us is critical, perhaps even a life and death matter. Continue reading On Being God’s Person (7/17/2016)
Dr. Seuss has been a good guide for us through this month in which we’ve celebrated our graduates and all those moving ahead in their education. He helped us see the possibilities and challenges of the places we might go. Through the eyes of the Lorax, he helped us see the consequences of greed and the need to love creation and care for the earth. Horton, the elephant, taught us something about the compassion and care of a most improbable daddy. We have encountered the doctor’s wit and wisdom, his art and passion, his challenging expectations and his tender heart.
In his little book, The Parables of Dr. Seuss, Robert Short describes the good doctor this way: “Dr. Seuss is a doctor of the soul, a doctor of wisdom, or a healer of the heart. So I don’t think it would be stretching things too far if we thought of Dr. Seuss as a sort of ‘spiritual cardiologist,’ a doctor who can work on many levels and with many different types of people” (Robert L. Short, The Parables of Dr. Seuss, p. 84). Continue reading Or How Blessed You Are? (6/26/2016)
Each month in this section of the Spire, I will be asking, “How can we turn information into transformation?” In searching for a response to this question, I won’t be highlighting our wonderfully long straight-white-male tradition. Rather I’d like us to look to the margins of our own tradition and to the rich variety of other spiritual traditions. I hope this diversity in spiritualties, theologies, and practices help illuminate the Christ within your own heart. For this first practice, let’s look to the Interreligious Center for Compassionate Living at the Claremont School of Theology and their guided meditation for multi-faith engagement.
Anchor yourself in whatever way you have found most helpful. Perhaps with attention to your breathing or some other physical experience; or allowing yourself to dwell interiorly with a Sacred Presence or in a sacred place; or immersing yourself in music, sacred words, or memories.
Ask yourself: What seemed least…freeing…inviting…gracious…loving…in my day?”
Let your mind wander across the day and settle on what it will.
Ask yourself: What seemed most…freeing…inviting…gracious…loving…in my day?”
Let your mind wander across the day and settle on what it will.
Ask yourself: What grace or gift is offered to me through considering these questions?
Note to yourself what emerges in response.
Ask yourself: What invitation is there for me in all of this?
Note to yourself what emerges in response.
Offer a prayer in response to what has come to you in this time or express your response in some other way, a way that seems appropriate for you.
As we have worked to make our road by walking it with Brian McLaren this past year, we have been given a set of three or four scripture passages to consider each week to direct us on our journey. This week we have four particularly challenging passages, especially for our contemporary context. I chose the one from Philemon for this morning’s ancient word but any of the four could have been used to explore what McLaren calls “the Spirit Conspiracy.”
The dictionary defines conspiracy as “an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; a plot.” It also indicates that it is a combination of persons for a secret, unlawful, or evil purpose.” This is hardly language we want to apply to the work of the Spirit or claim for our Christian enterprise. The last definition offered seems more in line with McLaren’s word play: a conspiracy is “any concurrence in action; combination in bringing about a given result.” So the Spirit Conspiracy is more a “concurrence in action,” a coming together in service of a common goal that will lead to a radical change in a situation. It’s plotting to upset of the status quo. It’s working in community toward a transformation of life.
In commenting on these passages, McLaren actually plays with the language of Mission Impossible – “Your mission, if you choose to accept it…” Conspiring with the Spirit in bringing about the Beloved Community of God is exhilarating but challenging work that we must choose and commit ourselves to. Sometimes it operates underground, works behind the scenes, is downright surreptitious in its progress toward bringing newness to life.
In each of the four passages from New Testament Epistles there is at least a hint of subversion to the status quo following the Jesus Way. The first passage is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:15-6:9). This is the passage in which Paul urges wives to “be subject” to their husbands,” husbands to “love” their wives, “children to obey” their parents. These are some of the words Southern Baptists and others use to “keep women in their place,” specifically, outside leadership in the church. But when Paul urges that the husbands love their wives and children and that familial relationships be characterized by honor and respect, he is subtly challenging patriarchy in which the male head of household had the right to treat wife and children as property with which he could do as he pleased. Is there conspiracy with the Spirit here to undermine the status quo in service of family life rooted and grounded in love? Love brings power to disrupt might, control, domination in establishing and sustaining human relationships.
Paul’s little letter to his friend, Philemon, is highly controversial. Paul has been faulted for not challenging the institution of slavery head on. That may be a fair critique. In this very personal communication, Paul sends the slave Onesimus back to serve his master. We know that this is one biblical passage that has been used to support institutional slavery. At the same time, apologists note that though Paul sends Onesimus home, he also urges Philemon to receive him as Paul’s adopted son and a brother in Christ. Instead of invoking legality, Paul appeals to Philemon on “the basis of love.” Again, we see the subversive power of love lifted up with Paul’s hope that it will transform the relationship of these two children of God and brothers in Christ.
In the passage from Hebrews (13:1-8), the writer addresses issues of undocumented aliens, prisoners, torture, marriage rights and the love of money. Here the writer more directly challenges the status quo. Fear of the foreigner, incarceration of poor debtors, torture of those arrested (as Jesus himself experienced,) marital infidelity and ruthless accumulation of wealth at the expense of the poor were social ills in the first century as much as they are today. Some things seem never to change.
Make room for strangers, care about and for those in prison, those who are victims of every kind of torture, learn to live in faithful relationship and honor all those who have committed themselves to one another, free yourselves from the love of money and be content with all with which you have been blessed. And, once more, it’s all undergirded by that transformative power of love. The writer begins his exhortation with these conspiratorial words, “Let mutual love continue.” Life in the Beloved Community depends on this mutual love.
Then James, perhaps the most outspoken of all, pulls no punches in his challenge to business practices that cheat the worker for the greed of the owner and to an economy in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you” (James 5:1-6). Not a text many preachers would choose to preach on most Sundays, and yet here again we hear the word that undermines the status quo in the service of justice and equity, in service of building up the Beloved Community of God.
When it comes to the Spirit conspiracy, to plotting the Jesus Way, there are three key elements to consider. I am indebted to our friend and webmaster, Andy Kille, for sharing these in our ministers’ support group last week. He says there are three concerns that the world’s great religions hold in common – compassion, hospitality and service. My response was to say that most surely these are foundational to Christianity, necessary to plotting the Jesus Way – compassion, hospitality and service. In each of these difficult passages we see one or more of these elements at work, transforming the situation into something closer to Jesus’ vision of God’s beloved community.
Compassion, the capacity to feel with another, to walk in another’s shoes, to get inside another’s skin. If we take the time and make the space for compassion, it will be hard to hate, difficult to judge, challenging to mistreat. Compassion carries forward empathy, that capacity to care for another and to work for their well-being, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Compassion is crucial to Paul’s advice about how husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and partners, ought to treat one another – with love and respect, tenderness and care for the well-being of all.
Hospitality is essential to the Jesus Way. All are welcome in this place. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the author of Hebrews says, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Make room at the table, open your door, cheer the weary traveler, who knows what wonders God has in store for the hospitable. Ask Mary Granholm and others in our congregation how their lives have been blessed by the practice of hospitality. As the old spirituals sing “There’s plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom, just choose your seat and sit down” and “We’re gonna eat the welcome table one of these days.” Hospitality asks, why not now? And it’s not just the strangers. It’s prisoners, those who have been beaten down and tortured, those who have been left out and left behind, those who have been lied to and cheated, terrorized and abused, poor and struggling, the least and the last and the lost.
Service is the Jesus Way. It’s not enough to feel compassionate and hospitable. Something has to be done, making room, making a way, making life better for all creation. This is crucial work in the Jesus Way. To love God with your whole being, to love your neighbor as yourself, to let mutual love continue means there is work to be done. Earlier in his letter, James writes “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
Husbands and wives, partners and lovers, children and parents, families of every size and shape, friends and neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances, strangers and enemies, rich and poor the Jesus Way insists that we all come together in one big tent, that we learn to live together and share with one another and care for one another wherever we find ourselves in whatever circumstances on this small, fragile planet. Indeed we need to extend compassion, hospitality and service to the whole of creation.
“The Spirit that moves among us,” writes Brian McLaren, “is the same Spirit that moves in and through all creation. If we are attuned to the Spirit, we will see all creatures as our companions…even as our relatives in the family of God, for in the Spirit we are all related” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 238). This is the wisdom of the Spirit Conspiracy. This is how we come to walk the Jesus Way – “to see all creatures as companions…as…relatives in the family of God.” So the plot thickens as we conspire with Spirit, as we make the dangerous, thrilling decision to walk the Jesus Way, as we devote ourselves to working for the Beloved Community. In today’s Word of Preparation, McLaren offers the challenge, “There are circles of people that the Spirit of God wants to touch and bless, and you are the person through whom the Spirit wants to work. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to conspire with the Spirit to bring blessing to others” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 235).
“To Be God’s People” is our theme for this year. I like it because it both challenges and comforts us, affirms and asks something of us. I suppose this is a tension we always live with as people of faith. We make the audacious claim that the One who created all that is loves and cares for us. We even claim to be made in the image and likeness of this Holy One. With both pride and humility, we say that we are children of the Living God.
In the southern USA, when somebody asks who your people are, they’re asking about your origins – where did you come from? What’s your tribe? Who are your mama and your daddy? We look back up the family tree and are bold to assert that we come from God. Our kin are the family of God. God is our mama and our daddy. I’m sure this sounds foolish to those who have not known God’s care and loving kindness, who have not sensed God’s grace or felt God’s embrace. We are God’s people because we have known it in our bones. This is a huge part of the good news we bring to those who are lost and wandering, unsure and wondering, lonely and hurting. Come on home. There’s plenty of room and plenty to share in the beloved community of God’s people. How do we know? We’ve experienced it.
At the same time there is lot work to be done if we are to fulfill our role as God’s people. It is a gift of grace, without a doubt, but it also entails enormous responsibility. To be God’s people is to share in God’s compassion and love for all creation. To be God’s people is to work for justice and peace. To be God’s people is to care or all those people who inhabit the planet, along with the earth itself. To be God’s people is to share from our abundance and privilege as we work for economic equity and opportunity for every human being to fulfill the life that God has given. To be God’s people is to join Jesus in bringing in the kingdom of God or, better, the beloved community of God, to reality right here, right now.
In looking for a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to commemorate the anniversary of his birth this week, I found these words: “I discovered later, and Iʹm still discovering, right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this‐worldliness I mean living unreservedly in lifeʹs duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.” To be God’s people is take seriously the suffering those of God in the world, those not knowing fully God’s embrace, those not trusting the everlasting arms. To be the people of God is to trust that God is with us, challenging us and sustaining us every step of the way.
In a sense, growing into the fullness of what it means to be God’s people brings us full circle, back to that sense of value and affirmation with which we began. In the beginning, when God created everything, including God’ people, God called it all good. God delighted in our being and blessed us. There are many ways we have wandered, many reasons we turn our backs on God, refusing to participate, many justifications for responding to the siren sounds that lure us away from God. But we always have the testimony of that boy, sitting in desolation and despair, who remembered that home was still there and who hoped against hope that God would be waiting with open arms. When he came to his senses he risked throwing himself completely into the arms of God. Who knows? In the process his life may have been transformed.
To be God’s people – to recognize the One to whom we belong, the One from whom we come and to whom we return. To be God’s people – to realize that home is waiting and to see that in that home there is room and resource for all people, indeed, for all creation. To be God’s people – to join joyfully with God in shared love and compassion, responsibility and care for that creation and all those people looking and longing to claim their identity as God’s people, whether they know it or not. To be God’s people – to throw ourselves into God’s everlasting arms, trusting that those arms are big enough and strong enough to hold the whole world, including us.
To be God’s people – to accept the challenge and to rest in the affirmation. May this be our journey in the year ahead and may God bless us every step of the way.
It seems that today’s worship service is, of necessity, a hybrid. To begin with it is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. As one liturgical year draws to a close and we anticipate a new one in the season of Advent, it seems appropriate to recognize and celebrate the fulfillment of the Christhood in life of the child whose birth we will soon recognize and celebrate. The story comes full circle and begins again. The little boy soon to be born once more ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of God in glory.
And of course it is the season of the great US holiday, Thanksgiving, with its dual emphasis on family togetherness and conspicuous consumption. Surely we must sing either “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” or “We Gather Together,” along with other songs of thankfulness for God’s blessings. Before facing “Black Friday and its aftermath, we will gather around tables groaning with the abundance of the feast. We will share the things for which we are grateful before eating ourselves into a stupor and falling asleep before televised football games or seasonal spectaculars.
Many congregations plan their annual stewardship drives to culminate on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, taking advantage of the generous spirit the season evokes. We are no exception. Today we have asked you to bring your pledges of support so that we might budget responsibly for the ministries of First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, in the coming year. Laura and I and others have asked and will continue to urge you to give generously in the spirit of gratitude for all that with which you have been blessed. As I have said once already this season, I am not embarrassed to ask you to give to support the budget because I believe in the ministries of this church and I believe in your witness as part of God’s beloved community. This congregation – that is, us – matters in this community and in the larger world as we worship, learn, care and serve together.
Then we have been on this journey with Brian McLaren, trying to understand how “we make the road by walking.” Because we need to move on to Advent next week, there were two chapters of the book and six wonderful scripture texts to consider for this week. If you’re not feeling a little overwhelmed by all this, you can rest assured that I am. However, undaunted by the overabundance of possibilities, we plunge ahead. Perhaps we will find a convergence of all the themes laid out before us for today. It is not unlike the rich array of dishes laid out for us at Friday’s Gratitude potluck, which, in the end, made a meal!
So let’s pick up where we left off last week. If you remember, our “Song for Sending Out” was the great hymn by Georgia Harkness, “Hope of the World.” This is one of my favorites and its words remained with me through the week, especially its opening phrase, “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion.”
I suppose on Christ the King Sunday the tendency is to think of Christ enthroned in glory. I know that when I googled images there was a rich collection of paintings, carvings and mosaics of the triumphant Christ, crowned in splendor. Still, there is something compelling in the Harkness image of Christ who, because of his compassion, is the hope of the world. We can glory in Christ ascendant. We can sing wholeheartedly the hymns to the Christ who reigns with God in heaven: “Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne…” But how well do we understand this God who takes on human form and dwells among us out of concern for the well-being of creation?
It’s a challenging paradox, this God of glory who is also the Christ of great compassion. Hear Harkness’s prayerful words once more:
Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion:
speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent.
Save us, your people, from consuming passion,
who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.
In the midst of abundance and celebration, do these words speak to you? Fearful hearts, conflict rent, consuming passion, false hopes and aims? Does any of that sound familiar? I think both Isaiah and Paul heard something of Harkness’s longing in today’s texts.
Paul is writing to a people by “conflict rent.” There was a battle going on among the Christ followers in Rome between Jews and Gentiles. If it was not an all out dispute between who was in and who was out, there was certainly tension between who was more and less favored. We may not be caught up in that particular conflict, but how many such battles can we identify in our world today and how many of them affect our own lives, at least indirectly? Can you name a few?
Paul says that this is the “hope” we find in the scriptures, that “…the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant[s us] to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He goes on to explain how the Jewish Messiah is also the Christ who welcomes all, Gentiles included, from before the beginning of time. In Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike find their hope. Hope of the world – not just part of the world, not just some of the people, not just aspects of creation – it’s the whole wide world.
Perhaps Paul’s vision was well summarized in this morning’s special music:
Many members, one body; many hearts, one hope, one faith in You.
And when we disagree teach our eyes to see that we are one
in the family of faith, the family of faith, joined by the miracle of grace.
We are brothers, we are sisters…children of the one Creator of all.
So as we live and grow, help us always know, that we are one
in the family of faith…
Compassion does that to you. It makes you aware of all that’s around you. It helps you hear the hopes and fears, the dreams and challenges of others. It give you access to the hearts and minds of everyone you encounter, if you will let it function in yourself. This is one of the crucial identifying characteristics of the Christ, the capacity for compassion, to feel as the others feel, to see as the others see, to share, ironically, in a common humanity. Christ sees and understands our fearful hearts, our conflicts, consuming passions, false hopes and aims. Christ also shares our dreams and joys, our laughter and play, our communion with one another and all creation. Compassion offers a uniting vision of what the world might yet be.
Isaiah’s vision is somewhat different but perhaps still related. You may also remember from last week that I began my sermon with several “texts of terror” – Joshua’s instruction to obliterate the seven tribes that occupied Canaan and a couple of the more violent passages from the Psalms. These verses from the second chapter of Isaiah come as a kind of oasis in the grim landscape of destruction promised for a disobedient, unfaithful people. Most of the first chapter of Isaiah and much of what follows today’s text is a prophecy of doom, related to all those empires that have and will conquer Israel and Judah. “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:10-15).
Not exactly an encouraging word, is it? But here is the hope in these first verses of chapter 2. Walter Brueggemann points out a rhythm to Isaiah. He says, “For all its harshness, the tradition of Isaiah characteristically moves to hope” (Walter Brueggemann, Westminster Bible Companion, Isaiah 1-39, p. 24). He affirms that “There is hope, but it is deeply postsuffering hope. Yahweh’s wrath is deep and serious and will be outlasted only by Yahweh’s resolve to bring Jerusalem to its true and proper function as a place of justice. The poet looks historical threat full in the face but holds out for the holy purpose of Jerusalem…” (op. cit., p. 22). The day will come when the nations will stream to God’s holy mountain, seeking instruction in peace and justice: “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven,
bringing to hungry souls the bread of life:
still let your Spirit unto us be given
to heal earth’s wounds and end our bitter strife.
I don’t mean to be a wet blanket on the glitter of the holiday season. There is much to celebrate and much for which we can be grateful. Still, even in a time of celebration, it is important to remember that there is much to concern us in the world around us and in our own lives. There is still trouble all over this world and parties and shopping and even celebratory worship services will not make it less so. Maybe in this season we can celebrate and be grateful for the Hope of the World. Maybe we can be touched by the Christ of great compassion. Maybe we can share the hopes and fears, the joys and concerns of all those we encounter. Maybe we can learn to live in harmony with one another as one family of faith. Maybe we can beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Maybe can pledge ourselves not to learn war anymore. Maybe we can heal the earth’s wounds and end all bitter strife.
Hope of the world, who by your cross did save us
from death and dark despair, from sin and guilt:
we render back the love your mercy gave us;
take now our lives and use them as you will. Amen.
Understand these words well:
You absolutely must achieve freedom!
You definitely must go down the path
that leads to the shore.
With an undaunted heart and singing
with a bold strong voice you will cross over.
You will have to breast the waves cheerfully
in spite of the storm’s blasts.
Even if the entanglements of illusions
cause you to reel in bewilderment
you will still have to get release.
On the path there are indeed thorns;
trampling on them,
you will have to go on.
Don’t die fearfully
while you hold dreams of happiness
tightly in your embrace.
In order to have your fill of life
You will have to sustain the blows of death.
As many of you know, it’s been a rough road lately in our home. Friends have lost loved ones, young children. We have lost family, a young man of twenty-two. The new year has been a bit rough thus far. But that is the way of things. So often I am inclined to think that there is ever a time without difficulty, without someone’s deep loss. I only imagine that there is a time free of loss and grief in the world. The truth is that there is never such a time.
This is why we must cultivate compassion. We must.
Suffering and death happen. We all get to do it. We may wish to live as if that were not true, our own mortality being too terrible a burden (understandably) for many. But today I am holding death up to the light and saying, once again, God does not give us suffering. God does not send us tests. The death of a loved one is not a test from the “God who so loved the world.” No. Never. Stop it.
Don’t do that to the one whom God loved so very much. God is kind, slow to anger, long-suffering. God is compassionate.
I have been reminded that we serve a God who suffers and dies every day, a crucified Christ. Suffering and death are not tests. They are never tests. Nor are they “gifts.”
The saying, “God never gives you more than you can handle” assumes we know a great deal about what God gives us in the first place. I’m not so certain we can know what God gives except to say God does not give us suffering. God does not give us death.
Instead, God suffers and dies.
Then there’s another poem. This one is from the Sufi poet Rumi. It goes something like this:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
A friend of mine recently said, “No matter how hard it gets I always say to myself, ‘I am glad to be alive.’” There is this thing we call joy, resurrection, suffering and death are never the end of the story. And though Lent will likely be a bit more deep and dark than usual for me this year, I am aware of where this season ends…