A Mother’s Day Tribute

Giving birth and nurturing new life are special gift from God. That’s why we pay tribute to all mothers on Mother’s Day. My wife Ruth and I enjoy the PBS television series “Call the Midwives.” It’s based on the story of a religious order of nuns and other midwives working with them to serve a working class community in London in the 1950s. This was the beginning of the National Health Service in Great Britain.

It was a tough world but it was also a genuine community of workers, mothers, shopkeepers, clergy, and healthcare providers who loved and cared for all their children. There’s both joy and heartache in each episode of the series. As a pastor, I appreciate the mostly positive role that the church plays. The story revolves around those tough and resilient midwives, the mothers, and the families they serve. Those of them who are not able to have children of their own become mothers in other ways through their service.

In that respect, we also pay tribute to all of us who take on mothering roles regardless of gender or having biologically given birth to a child—we dare not forget grandmothers. All mothers and those who support them are the unsung heroes in our society. These are the most important responsibilities in our world.

It’s fitting to make the connection between our creator God and the life giving and nurturing role of all mothers. I especially appreciate the poem “Mothering God You gave Me Birth,” by Mennonite poet Jean Janzen based on the writings of the 13th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich.

Mothering God, you gave me birth
in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, Source of every breath,
you are my rain, my wind, my sun;
you are my rain, my wind, my sun.

This year Ascension Day and Mother’s Day fall within several days of each other; let’s see if we can make a connection between Mother’s Day and Ascension Day. Christ’s ascension takes place 40 days after Easter. In the Bible, the number 40 is mythically alive. Rain fell for 40 days on Noah’s ark; the Children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years; a woman is secluded for 40 days after giving birth; and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days before launching his ministry. All are pregnant times with a religious future.

Psalm 47 is a customary scripture readings for Ascension Day, It celebrates God as king over all the earth. The vision of God’s kingship is multidimensional, involving memory of the past, experience of the present, and hope for the future. It reaches back to the story of creation where God creates a living ecosystem out of barren chaos. It also reveals what God is doing behind and beyond the confusion of much that is happening in the world. As a people of faith, we absorb headline daily news with this realization.

God reigns over the nations and this means that, as a people of God, our identity transcends our ethnic and national identities. As Christians, our story transcends the American story. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about how broken our national story is and how this is shaping our presidential primary in ugly ways:

Up until now, America’s story has been some version of the rags-to-riches story, the lone individual who rises from the bottom through pluck and work. But that isn’t working for people anymore, especially if people think the system is rigged. I don’t know what the new national story will be, but maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today (New York Times, April 29, 2016)

As followers of Jesus, we have a contribution to make to the new national story that David Brooks envisions. Rather than a story of pluck and self-sufficiency, our story is about giving love, nurture, care, dignity, and justice—especially for those who are most vulnerable. We respond as the people of our mothering God.

Advertisements

Spiritual Wisdom from a Garden

church garden 2

Spring turns my attention to gardening. The cool weather crops of lettuce, kale, carrots, peas, broccoli, cabbage and chard that I planted several weeks ago are thriving—they even seemed to enjoy the recent cold snap. I’ve been browsing gardening magazines for my bedtime reading. Cynthia Woods wrote in the Virginia Gardener about an ancient oak tree that came crashing down in her garden on Christmas eve.

Cynthia says that after she recovered from the shock and horror of smashed Camellia and azaleas, an enormous hole in the ground, and more muck and mire than she cares to describe, she began to ponder what to do about the situation. She had worked on the garden for over 20 years and had recently rather smugly decided that she had it where she wanted it.

She says she should have known better. “A garden is never, ever finished. Any experienced gardener knows that even entertaining such heretical thoughts is just plain foolish.” She began to look at the desolation each day and walked around it to try to see and hear what the new, radically altered landscape was telling her.

Plants that thrived in the shade of an oak tree will not be happy in the bright sunlight that emerges when it falls to the ground.  After she finished sulking, Cynthia began to contemplate the possibilities for the new, open space in her garden, perhaps an interesting Japanese maple and some low growing conifers that she could train to grow over large rocks.

Even under the best of circumstances, things are never finished. Cynthia concludes, “It’s best to accept the lessons of patience, watchfulness, and resilience that our gardens offer. Slow gardening—it’s the way to go. Breathe deeply, observe closely, and enjoy everything, even the imperfections. There is beauty in everything.”

The same wisdom applies to faith communities. Together we’re God’s garden. Our church is located in a particular spiritual micro-climate here by Daniels Run in the City of Fairfax. This environment supports what will grow in our garden. I’m not sure what the equivalent of an ancient oak tree toppling over might be but the wisdom we can gain from this is that even disasters open up new possibilities—that is if we have eyes to see and ears to hear what our new landscape is telling us.

Like Cynthia walking around in her garden, I spent considerable time getting familiar with this new space when I first became the pastor of our church. I occasionally walk downtown for lunch to absorb the ambience of our city. I have joined the local Clergy and Leadership Council to get a better feel for what other faith communities are doing and to explore ways of working together. I find ways to build relationships with church members.

I love puttering around in our church garden. My gardener and pastoral avocations flow together as I dream of ways to keep developing who we are and what we have. Our Fairfax community is part of the old South. This was a slaveholding community and a Civil War site. How does our presence, and the life of our peace oriented church fit into God’s purposes for our community?

The apostle Paul says we’re co-workers linked together as one. (1 Corinthians 3: 9) The Greek word he uses is synergoi from which we get the word synergy—diverse people working together to achieve a common purpose. Skilled garden landscapers strive to weave a common thread through a garden that ties things together but it’s the contrasts of shape, texture, and color that make it interesting. Monocultures are boring; furthermore, they’re more perceptible to pests and disease. So we mix it up. Inviting, resilient, and thriving churches have the same characteristics.

A Beautiful Thing

 

20160222_2 (1)

The beautiful bloom above is from our Wandering Iris plant. You need to be attentive or you’ll completely miss it. The Wandering Iris blooms only once a year, scattering its blooms over several weeks, each bloom lasting only one day. I see a parallel in the lectionary reading of the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and then wiping his feet with her hair (John 12: 1-8).

It’s holy extravagance! The vial of nard perfume that Mary poured over Jesus’ feet comes from the spikenard plant that grows high up in the Himalayan Mountains of India, Nepal, and China. Because of the long overland journey, it was very expensive in ancient Palestine. One vial alone cost about 300 denarii, which was about a year’s wages.

The significance of this story is often missed in the church calendar because it’s immediately followed by accounts of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Good Friday and the crucifixion, and the resurrection on Easter morning. I suspect we also skip over the story because we don’t know what to make of its extravagance and sensuality. A beautiful woman splurged a year’s wages on a vial of perfume, which she poured over Jesus feet, wiped them with her hair, and filled the whole house with the fragrance.

I admit that I would have been shocked by this display and would have sided with those who grumbled that it would have been better to sale the perfume and give the money to the poor. Jesus wasn’t having any of it, saying, “This is beautiful!” In what sense is spirituality sensual and extravagant? For frugal and somewhat prudish folk like me, all this seems self-indulgent rather than holy.

We don’t talk a lot about beauty in the church and God forbid that we would talk about sensuality. We instead talk about worship, mission, service, peace, and justice–all good and worthy things. Let’s lay aside that discussion for a bit to ponder (dream and scheme) about how our spirituality and our service can be informed by Mary’s beautiful deed of holy extravagance.

We Care

20160218_1

A slogan on our church sign by the road proclaims that we are, “A Caring Christian Community.” It expresses our desire and hope for the kind of community we want to be. Yet the word “caring” begs to be filled out. I did some research and found three different quotes about caring:

  • This one especially grabbed my attention. “Some people care too much; I think it’s called love”—Winnie the Pooh.
  • Another reminds me of something my former spiritual director would say. “A smile is the light in your window that tells others that there’s a caring, sharing person inside”—Denis Waitley.
  • Yet another is especially appropriate for smaller churches. “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world, for, indeed, that’s all who ever have”—Margaret Mead.

In what ways are we caring and how is that put into action? Pastor and small church advocate David Ray says there are good reasons why smaller churches are the right size to be caring communities. People come to small churches because they want to be with others rather than to worship in isolation (The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, 154).

Smaller churches can take time to care because we don’t need to be fully occupied with keeping the institution running, as is true in larger organizations. If the way we think about our ministry and the way we structure our church life are more relational, we as a people will be more relational. We then have a greater capacity to care for others and to meet the needs of people.

 

 

Lent and Valentine’s Day

20121017_26

The First Sunday of Lent and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day this year. Each reminds us of both the wonder and pathos of being alive. We are part of the whole web of life and we trust in God’s care for all creation. Life is full of unspeakable love and beauty. Yet none of us, no matter how powerful or privileged, is immune from personal tragedy and suffering.

Christian mystic Evelyn Underhill reminds us, “No Christian escapes a taste of the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.” A standard biblical reflection for the season of Lent is Christ’s temptation in the desert. The desert reminds us that life is fragile and that we all have internal demons against which we struggle. Our inclination to ignore the relationship between love and suffering keeps us from recognizing the pared-down beauty that the desert brings.

It also keeps us from developing the spiritual resources that we can draw on during times of adversity? The Bible is replete with the assurance that we can turn to God for strength and security. Common cognates are that God is our refuge, our fortress, our stronghold, our dwelling place, and our shelter. We learn to trust as a way of coping with the adversities and anxieties that beset our lives.

James Healy writes, “Whether we gaze with longing into the garden or with fear and trembling into the desert, of this we can be sure—God walked there first! And when we who have sinned and despoiled the garden are challenged now to face the desert, we do not face it alone. Jesus has gone there before us to struggle with every demon that has even plagued a human heart.”

God’s Peace Stands Guard

A group of us recently went to hear a Celtic Christmas concert at George Mason University. I love the rhythm and sound of Celtic music. It has its own kind of spirituality rooted in the soil and history of Ireland. Later that evening we listened to President Obama’s address to our nation about the threat of violent acts of terrorism from Islamic jihadists. It was like being transported from one world into another.

What Obama had to say was sobering. I recognize his responsibility as president to keep American citizens safe. Yet I’m concerned that actions such as aerial bombings and drone strikes in foreign countries further escalate the cycle of violence, kill innocent civilians, and increase the flow of refugees. Equally concerning were the critical responses of CNN commentators following the president’s address. One was especially alarmist and clearly desired stronger rhetoric.

Such rhetoric arrived the next day when a major presidential candidate advocated barring all Muslims from entering our country. Then the president of an evangelical Christian university told the university community that he was carrying a concealed weapon and urged them to do the same in order to stop any potential Muslim threat. Whatever else we might say about that, it’s certainly not the gospel.

In a time like this I’m drawn to our Advent scripture passages from Isaiah and Philippians. The prophet Isaiah is responding to a situation of war and conflict in the Middle East that mirrors what’s happening in our day. The small nations in the region were picking sides and aligning themselves with the bigger powers of Egypt and Assyria, primarily based to which side they thought would win. The prophet talks of the boots of tramping warriors and of garments rolled in blood (9: 5). Armies were sweeping through the region and destroying towns and cities.

Isaiah’s council to people of faith is to not place their hopes for security in such national alliances and to instead trust in God. “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (12: 2). We will want to consider what such trust looks like in our world that’s awash in high-powered guns and weapons of war.

The words of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians are equally instructive (4: 4-7). He counsels Christians to not become consumed by our anxieties or to become victimized by our problems. We are instead to be known for our deep sense of joy and gentleness or forbearance. Two things make this possible. The first is our experience of Christ present in our midst. The other is the assurance that “the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.”

Paul uses a military metaphor of God’s peace standing guard. Because we have that assurance we don’t need to scan the horizon for new threats. Alert, yes, anxious, no. There is an appropriate level of concern but the kind of anxiety swirling around right now is not fitting for followers of Jesus who have placed their trust in God.

Advent as a Pregnant Time

Given that I’m male it’s a little audacious for me to talk about being pregnant. My closest experience has been living with my wife during her pregnancies with our three children—I certainly can’t claim any firsthand knowledge. Nevertheless, from those memories, I can characterize it as being filled with anticipation, of feeling awkward, and finally a desire to just have it end.

The first Advent season was a pregnant time. Both Mary and Elizabeth with expecting babies. Their husbands, Zechariah and Joseph were, we could say, a bit clueless. The women were much more aware of what was happening. But to be fair, their husbands eventually caught on and certainly supported their wives. It was all a bit awkward. New life was gestating. Tummies were getting big and it was a little hard to keep one’s balance. Things were moving, taking shape, growing. It involved so many hopes and dreams of what God was doing in their world.

This may sound a little sacrilegious but I like to think that God was pregnant. I know it’s a stretch to imagine God with a big extended tummy, walking awkwardly and slightly off balance. But isn’t that much better than imagining God as a stern judge in his chambers keeping track of our sins or as a fierce warrior on the battlefield slaying his enemies?

Speaking of God as a pregnant mother isn’t new. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God as being in labor bringing new life  (44:14) and as a mother comforting her children (66:13). The medieval Christian mystic Julian of Norwich is known for her female images of God. Her words have been made into a poem by Jean Janzen and put to music by Janet Peachy. It’s now in our church hymnal, “Mothering God, you gave me birth in the bright morning of this world. Creator, source of every breath, you are my rain, my wind, my sun.”

Just as in the first century, our world is also pregnant and we wait in anticipation of the new life taking form in and among us. In this Advent season, we will want to be especially aware of some of the awkward, hopeful, pregnant possibilities in our personal lives, in our church, and in our world.