Compassion

Compassion Il-GuercinoSeptember 8, 2013

Erin said it best…What a ‘blessing’ to share our time together as we explored ‘compassion.’   “Wow.”  It was another really great, inspiring Not Church.

Erin’s sermon was fantastic.  She’s recreated it here in case you missed it.

And here is a link to the Inspirations page where you will find excerpts from Kathy, Ron, Teena, Molly & Arthur.  Unfortunately, we haven’t yet arranged to record our gatherings, so we don’t have a sampling of Ross’s awesome selections. But keep checking back…

The next Not Church gathering will be Sunday, October 13th.

 

pruning, abiding and bearing fruit: repentance and the days of awe*
Sunday, September 9, 2012

“Grapes”

I remember, after I had been ordained–three years ago this October–though there were many emotions present, there was one with a very particular outlet.

I was excited, finally, to be able to have something to say that I ‘do’ when crossing the  border from Mexico to the US and being questioned by the border guards. Up until that point I had tried to describe it–well, I’m in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister, but I’m also a photographer and a writer and I travel a lot–but now I could just say “I’m a Presbyterian minister.” Easy. Done.

Right.

My first time crossing, after being ‘official’ as a minister I drove up to the gate (this was pre-SENTRI pass for those who pay attention to such details) ready to give my answer.

Sure enough the guard asked me, “What do you do?” Almost too proudly I responded, “I’m a Presbyterian minister” to which his immediate response was, “Recite the 23rd Psalm.”

I blanked. Totally blanked. This was not what I was expecting from the US Border Guard.

“Yea though I walk thru the shadow of death…” I tried, starting in the middle and stopping far short of the end.

“Keep going,” he said.

“Well, I don’t have it memorized,” I had to admit to him. “Do you?” I asked him in return.

“Yep,” he responded.

“Well, you must be Catholic,” I replied, to which he, smiling, answered in the affirmative.

“I’m Presbyterian, we don’t have to memorize Psalm 23,” I responded, rather pathetically, I can admit.

He, smiling, waved me through as I, in my shame, crossed over to the other side.

The very next time I crossed, not to be dissuaded, I planned on the same answer–though I still hadn’t memorized the 23rd Psalm.

“What do you do?” the border guard asked me. “I’m a Presbyterian minister,” I responded.

“Do you have any drugs, tobacco or alcohol with you?” he responded.

Oh, so you must be Presbyterian too…

This month our Not Church theme is the Days of Awe. It is a phrase that references the Jewish calendar, a ten day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, and ending with Yom Kippur.

It is said that on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, God writes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur those records are sealed. The time between, then, is a sort of ‘purgatory’ if you will in which one can, if necessary, attempt to change the outcome.

What is interesting is that the two days are not back to back, one right after the other.  They are separated by ten days, what are known as the Days of Awe. This ‘grace period’ in a sense, is a time of penitence, of repentance, of considering what one has done that is not exactly what might have been best, and what one might do, in the coming year, to change that.

The new year begins with repentance. Ten days of repentance. It’s not unlike the New Year, the January 1st one, being a time of making resolutions. Though with the Days of Awe there is more of a focus on this need to cleanse that which has kept one distant.

Many of you know that I like to work in my garden. I’ve given you a break from garden stories for the past few months, but you know that can last only so long…

Lately I’ve been planting fruit trees. Many fruit trees. At last count I’ve got 15. You name the fruit, I’ve likely got it. except for Quince, which I had to look up when the plant guys were trying to sell me a membrillo to see what that meant. Even having the translation, knowing that the tree was a quince didn’t help me much. I’m not sure what to do with a quince.

But mango, apple (yes, I do have both mango and apple planted in the same yard…we’ll see how that goes) peach, nectarine, plum, avocado, guava, pomegranate, pear, tangerine, lemon, lime, grapefruit and, most recently, orange. I’ve also got an almond tree, a pistachio bush, and two grape vines.

Not that long ago I posted a photo of my grape vine, newly purchased, and captioned it ‘grapes!’ A friend on facebook correctly pointed out that, in fact, this was not a photo of grapes, but of a grape vine (with not even a flower at this point) and that by calling it grapes I was expressing something that I ‘saw’ but that clearly was not yet realized.

Which, of course, is what I think the ‘Days of Awe’ are all about…

Jesus, himself a Jew, who, it happens, liked to tell stories from the garden, is said to have put it this way in the book of John–the most poetic and mysticalof the four gospels:

I am the vine and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. (John 15:1-5)

Pruning, abiding, and bearing fruit.

It seems to me that the word ‘repentance‘ has got a bit of a PR problem.  I think that the idea ‘repentance’ can be a word we don’t necessarily like talking about. It too easily can bring up images of hate mongers, standing on the corner spewing vitriol, or protesting whatever they see as the current threat, while waving signs that say “Repent!”

If that’s what ‘repent’ is, I want nothing to do with it.

But in Hebrew, which is the language of the Jewish Scriptures, the word translated as repent is most often the Hebrew word Shoov, which, literally, means to turn. When I was in seminary, studying Hebrew one summer, my friends and I had to memorize something in the range of 40 words a day. The mnemonic which we used to remember Shoov was the image of your shoe, turning around. That’s free of charge. There was also another word,Ohell, which we remembered as “Ohell there’s a bear in the tent” but I can’t remember if the word means ‘tent’ or ‘bear.’ Since there are more tents than bears in the Bible, I’m guessing it was the former…

I also took Greek, which is the language of the Christian Scriptures, known often as the New Testament. In Greek the word for repent is most oftenmetanoia, or to change ones mind.

So repent literally means to turn around–to stop going in one direction and turn, or return, in the opposite direction. It is a changing of ones mind.

It is not so much about “Horrible me, I’m an awful person, what must I do to rid myself of my horrible-ness.” It is more like ‘pruning’ which is an entirely different concept altogether. I’ve seen it primarily in my bougainvillea.

Last winter I gave the bougainvillea what I would call a good haircut. So good, in fact, that people who saw it wondered if it would ever come back. It had been a few years since I had pruned it, and in the intervening time it had gotten rather ‘leggy’ and not very full. So I pruned it. It was not because I was mad at it, or because it is an awful plant and needed to be punished–I pruned it because I wanted it to grow well.  And this summer? The blossoms are abundant, the foliage is dense and green.

The Days of Awe give us an opportunity to reflect, to prune.

But the thing about pruning, and about bearing fruit is that they both, of course, assume planting. There is a Chinese proverb–the best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago. The second best time is today.

The thing is, if you want to eat grapes now, you don’t plant a grape vine. If you want to eat grapes now you go to the fruteria and, provided they are in season, which they are currently, you buy yourself some grapes.

Planting a grape vine is something different entirely.

Though I have 15 fruit trees, this summer I can tell you exactly how much fruit I ate from them: three nectarines and one plum. That’s it. Four pieces of fruit. Granted, they were delicious. The best nectarine you’ve ever eaten. A plum that was sweet beyond anything that you’d buy at the store. But, that’s something in the range of $50 per piece of fruit, if you do the math.

It’s not exactly a great deal. At least not yet.

Right now, in fact, it seems a bit absurd, really.

But give it time. It will most definitely seem absurd. But, I trust, for entirely different reasons.

For I remember, as a kid growing up, we had a plum tree in our back yard. There were three of us–my mom, my dad and I–and we could not possibly eat all of the plums that came from that tree in a given summer, making jam with some, and giving the rest away. In fact, I was born in June, and that summer the plum tree on Snug Harbor Road had a bumper crop. Let’s just say, my mom learned the hard way that what she ate, I ate. But, I like to think that the love of plums, fresh from the tree, was instilled within me from the very milk that I feasted on when I was only weeks old.

That was one tree, with three people. I’ve planted 15 trees. I hope you all like fruit…

The Days of Awe invite us into a time of reflection, of repentance, of turning away from certain ways of being, pruning if you will, and turning toward that which bears fruit, abiding.

We are invited to consider that which we need to let go of, that which binds us, that which keeps us from being who we already are.

The fundamental question asked, in the ten day period represented by the Days of Awe, is ‘will my name be written in the book of life?’

We are called to turn, to change our minds, to repent.

But, at the end of the day, the point is not the pruning. The point is to bear fruit.

Jesus, when he preached among the people, put it this way: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Turn. Return. Change your mind. That which you are seeking, it is not ‘out there’ distant in some far off place or for some future time. Believe. It is right here, now, among you, within you.

You are already who you are still becoming–like a Presbyterian minister who doesn’t know the 23rd Psalm. Like a fruit tree. Like a grape vine.  This process doesn’t happen over night or immediately. It is not instantaneous. There is a time, a grace period–the Days of Awe–a space between the New Year and the Day of Atonement.

It’s like seeing that young vine, still only a plant, no fruit yet to speak of, and proclaiming, “grapes!”

 

 

breaking the bread of happiness

The story of this Easter Day that we read this morning, from the gospel of John, is actually one of four accounts, in the Bible, that tell the story. Each account tells a slightly different version of the story–not unlike La Mision, where everyone has their own twist on the chisme of the day!

Part of what I love about this story is that, in it, Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest companions, upon encountering him, doesn’t even know who he is. She thinks he is the gardener, of all things! I love it. Was he wearing his cut offs and black rubber boots? Is that why she thought he was the gardener?

Granted, to her credit, she did not expect to see Jesus walking around. She was looking for a dead guy, who was supposed to be in that garden tomb, behind a big rock. So, we can cut her a little slack that she didn’t, right off the bat, realize that it was Jesus that she was talking to.

In fact, even when he spoke to her, she still didn’t recognize him. He wasn’t what she was expecting.

“Woman, why are you crying?” he asked her. She heard his voice. But it was not until he called her by name, “Mary,” that her eyes were opened and that she could see that somehow, miraculously, it was actually Jesus standing there before her.

Last week I came back from Thailand. It was a long flight. I flew through Tokyo, on Al Nippon airlines. It just so happened that one of the movies that was playing was a Japanese film called Bread of Happiness.

Bread of Happiness is a story of a husband and wife who move from the big city of Tokyo to a remote rural area, really nowhere in particular, not necessarily a destination itself, but somewhere with a bus stop–a place that is more on the way to somewhere else than a place to head for its own sake.

The wife, Rie, has always dreamed of her soulmate–the perfect companion with whom to share her life, her dreams, her hopes for the future. But, instead, she’s got her husband, Sang. It is not that they are unhappy–but it is just not the dream that Rie had been imagining. It wasn’t the life she was expecting.

There, somewhat in the middle of nowhere, they open a cafe–a cafe in which, each day, each season, Sang bakes bread–a different type of bread, based on the season. As the two begin to carve out this life together, people seem to find their way to the cafe–a woman who has been dumped by her boyfriend, an elderly couple who plan to go there to die, a young girl who has lost her mom–and in the midst of the sharing of bread together, and the hospitality of Rie and Sang, the bread that is broken together begins to heal the brokenness of their lives.

Toward the end of the movie–and it was a long flight, I should have been sleeping, and was sort of on the verge of it–all of a sudden I had to rewind it, as a phrase (in the subtitles, of course–I’m not yet fluent in Japanese) caught my attention.

It was almost said in passing between the characters, but it struck me by its simple depth–companion, as it turns out, literally in the origin of the word, means those who share bread together. Really? I had never heard that. I had no idea that is what the word meant. Companion. Those who share bread together.

For, though Rie did not find her ‘soulmate,’ what she did find, in the kneading of their lives together, in the sharing of the bread, was that Sang had become her companion.

Today is Easter. It’s a big day. One of the two biggest days, in the Christian calendar. It’s a holiday. A big celebration. And that is fantastic, something to be celebrated and enjoyed.

But I began to think, as I pondered the Bread of Happiness and Mary thinking Jesus was the gardener, if resurrection, new life, is not also played out in the unexpectedly ordinary–in the day to day, sharing of bread with one another, in a place that is really here nor there, but somewhere along the journey? Being companions to one another, breaking bread together, and in the midst of that breaking, finding that our own brokenness is being kneaded together as well?

Recently I saw an article posted on facebook. It was called ‘The Brain on Love,’ from the NY Times. A line from it caused me to pause:

In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.

What we pay the most attention to, defines us, literally transforms us.

So, on this Easter Sunday, let us celebrate the big moments of new life, rebirth, and resurrection. But let us also go into the world, into the ordinary moments, as companions, those who break bread with one another, and share that bread with the world.

From “Time Magazine” —a great story about Not Church

The online story is available only to subscribers this week. But here’s a copy from Diana Butler Bass.

4 The Rise Of The Nones — Monday, Mar. 12, 2012
By AMY SULLIVAN
http://www.time.com/time/letters/email_letter.html

In the tiny coastal town of La Misin on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, dozens of American
expats meet for a Sunday gathering they call Not Church. Many of them long ago
gave up on traditional religious institutions. But they function as a
congregation often does–engaging one another in spiritual conversation and
prayer, delivering food when someone is sick and working together to serve the
poor.

On a recent Sunday the group, which began as a monthly discussion about a year
ago, featured a sunny-haired ordained Presbyterian named Erin Dunigan delivering
a sermon about tomatoes and God’s call to Samuel. (Organized religion, she told
them, can be like supermarket tomatoes–flavorless and tough. That isn’t a
reason to give up on religion, or tomatoes, but instead to find a fresh, local
version worth cultivating.) “It was beautiful,” Dunigan says. “The people who
don’t want anything to do with the church or religion were the people who were
leading everyone else in the service.”

These expats provide an example of a very American trend: turning away from
organized religion and yet seeking rich if unorthodox ways to build spiritual
lives. The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is the category of people
who say they have no religious affiliation. Sometimes called “the nones” by
social scientists, their numbers have more than doubled since 1990; major
surveys put them at 16% of the population. But as the Not Church community
shows, many of those who have given up on organized religion have not given up
on faith. Only 4% of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic.

Diana Butler Bass’s new book Christianity After Religion notes that the past
decade has been particularly challenging for organized religion in the U.S.,
from the Catholic sex-abuse scandal to the entanglement of faith in heated
political campaigns–resulting in a “sort of ‘participation crash.'” Nearly
every religious tradition has suffered. Even some megachurches, which pride
themselves on marketing to people turned off by traditional religion, have
floundered.

But the hunger for spiritual connection and community hasn’t gone away. A 2009
survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked respondents whether they
believed in God, how often they prayed and whether they were affiliated with a
particular religion; it found that “40% of the unaffiliated people were fairly
religious,” says director Luis Lugo. “Many said they were still hoping to
eventually find the right religious home.”

That resonates with Dunigan, 40, who acts as a sort of unofficial chaplain for
the Not Church members. “My sense is that for most, they’re not rejecting God,”
she says. “They’re rejecting organized religion as being rigid and dogmatic.”

The U.S. has a long tradition of producing spiritual innovators and
entrepreneurs. Today they’re the organizers in the emergent-church movement, an
effort by younger Christian leaders (there’s a similar movement among Jews) to
take religion away from musty pews and fierce theological fights by creating
small worship communities that often meet in members’ homes.

For traditional religious institutions, the challenge is how to adapt to this
trend rather than fight it.

Dunigan has the support of the Presbyterian Church, which agreed to ordain her
as an “evangelist,” a designation rarely used these days for clergy serving
Americans. That ordination is already affecting the views of her ad hoc
congregation. Says Dunigan: “It allows the folks that I spend time with to say,
‘If organized religion is willing to try something new, maybe I should give
organized religion a chance.'”

on cracks, edge, and light

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

When I decided to quit my corporate job to attend seminary I also decided to spend the summer before I started school working in the Dominican Republic. I worked with an organization that was just getting started in the small mountain town of Jarabacoa.

It was a wonderful experience—and definitely a crash course in immersion for my up to that point classroom only Spanish knowledge.

Jarabacoa is a small town, with dirt roads, not unlike La Mision. As I got to know my way around I began to, each afternoon after work, go for a jog throughout the town.

Suffice it to say that this was not standard behavior amongst the local Dominicans, but after a few weeks of odd looks, I began to get invited, in the midst of my run, for coffee. I tried to politely explain that no, I couldn’t really stop, I had to keep running. Coffee in the DR is more like a shot of espresso with about a cup of sugar, so it may have helped the running, actually.

One afternoon I happened to be running past a primary school as it let out for the day. The children came flooding out onto the dirt road as I was running past. Some of them joined in with me, running along side me, huge smiles on their faces. It was beautiful, really.

It could have been a picture-perfect photo shoot for some sort of ‘save the children’ type organization, with Sally Struthers narrating as the camera rolled, me running, flanked by children, all of us smiling.

And that is when I saw it. The finger.

One of the boys, running along side me, with a huge smile on his face, was also, I realized, holding up his hand, giving me the finger.

So much for the photo shoot.

There is never a dull moment, living in another culture, is there? There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Recently I was reading a daily meditation by one of my favorite authors, catholic priest Richard Rohr. To be honest, I continue to be amazed at the abundant openness in his teachings, and how he continues to take the walls of doctrine and belief and push them out further, and further, and further, until there is this expansive spaciousness in the lessons that he shares. It is a good reminder to me that this welcoming inclusiveness has a place, even in the midst of the most organized of religion.

In this daily meditation Father Rohr quoted the Leonard Cohen song, ‘anthem.’ You may know it. The refrain goes like this:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Richard Rohr goes on to say that “there is simply a crack in everything and so we should not be surprised when it shows itself in us or in everything else.

But it can be so easy to want to fix the crack, can’t it? To get out the glue, or the duct tape, and patch it up as quickly as possible, before it cracks any further. Or, better yet, avoid the cracks altogether, keeping life safe, out of harm’s way, far from the danger of that which might threaten it.

Working in the garden hardly seems like it would be a dangerous activity, but yesterday a run-in with a fairly thick, coiled, unknown snake has made me start to wonder. To be honest, I didn’t really want to get close enough to identify tail or head markings.

One of the things I love about working in the yard is the constant learning—though I’d prefer it to be about vegetables than reptiles.

Amongst a certain contingent of somewhat geeky gardeners there is a term that is growing in recognition. It’s called permaculture. Permaculture, is a way of looking at the system as a whole, rather than each individual part. Within permaculture there is a concept called edge.

Edge is where two systems meet. So, for instance, here along the shoreline we are in a place of edge, where the sea and the beach meet. Edge might be where a forest touches a field. Edge is where the energy is in a system. If you want to increase the vitality and fertility, increasing edge is one way of doing that.

For example, if you were to have a pond in your garden, rather than create the pond as a circle, if you were to make its shoreline all squiggly, that, in turn, increases edge, which, in turn, increases the amount of life that can thrive and benefit from that pond.

So, if you, as a gardener, want to increase the yield of your garden, you might want to figure out ways to increase the amount of edge. Edge is where the action is. Edge, according to wikipedia, is a place with an intense area of productivity and useful connections.

Edge is a space of encounter. A space of engagement.

We are, at this time of year, in just such a season of edge—the edge between the winter and summer that is spring. With the time change last night we have a tangible sense of the lengthening of the days. In the Christian calendar the name given to this season is Lent. Not lint that you find in your pocket, but Lent. The word literally means spring, and having to do with the lengthening of the days.

Lent is the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter, often seen as a time of giving up something—whether chocolate or beer or cake or thin mint girl scout cookies.

Because of the focus on abstaining, Lent, and thus those who practice it, can be seen as a rather killjoy of a time—especially coming from the craziness of Carnival or Fat Tuesday, the night before the time of ‘fasting’ begins.

But, in a sense, Lent can also be seen as a time of creating space, an allowing of some emptiness, of making room for that from which the new life of spring will blossom.

The season of Lent is, itself, an edge, between the now and the not yet.

The thing is, we all who are here, we are also living, in a sense, in a place of edge. Living in a country that is not our own, but one that we have chosen. Living physically in a place where multiple cultures have the opportunity to encounter one another.

Sure, it can be a place of challenge—navigating the language, assumptions, and the way things are done. Who hasn’t been thrown off by the nuance between ahora, now, and ahorita, a now that is, how do we put it, a bit less punctual than we might be likely to assume.

At times life here can be like running along that dirt road side by side with those Dominican children, smiling, basking in the beauty and the joy of it all. And, I think, if we are honest, at times it can be a bit like turning and seeing that one boy, middle finger held all in the air.

That is part of the territory, in life along the edge. It’s part of the risk. It is precisely this encounter with differentness, with otherness, that brings the challenge and the risk, but also gives the vitality, and the life.

We are, most of us, much too familiar with the fear such living in the midst of edge can bring.

Just last weekend, in talking with the wonderful surgeon who operated on Jimmy’s heart to save his life, I was asked again, ‘But is Baja safe?’

This surgeon had visited Baja many times when he was younger, to surf, explore the tidepools near the bufadora, and eat lobster at puerto nuevo. He had a first hand knowledge of this place. But because of what he’s heard in the news, he wondered, is it safe?

We’ve all heard it, been asked it, haven’t we? That ubiquitous ‘is it safe?’

And, to be honest, normally I try to do my best to assure people that, of course it is, that it is just the media sensationalizing, not making distinctions on particular locations as if Chicago’s crime would make you not want to go to Portland.

I try to explain to them, as I’m guessing many of us do, that this fear is actually having a direct impact on the life and well being of so many of us, including our own friends, and ourselves, who depend on the income of tourism for renting horses or renting houses.

But it’s also got me thinking about a line from the children’s book, and movie, The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe. In this book four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy enter through a wardrobe into the magical world of Narnia. When they arrive they meet a couple of beavers—Mr. And Mrs. Beaver, who begin to tell them about the great king of Narnia, Aslan, the Lion. Talk of a lion starts to make the children somewhat uncomfortable. Finally one of them asks, “Um, Mr. Beaver, this lion, Aslan, is he, is he quite safe?” To which Mr. Beaver responds, ‘Safe?! Who said anything about safe? Of course he’s not safe. But he is good.”

Is living in this place safe? I’ve begun to wonder if my answer shouldn’t be “of course it isn’t safe.”

Who knows how you will be transformed?
Who knows how you will be changed?
Who knows what food you will begin to eat, what friends you will make, what decisions you will begin to make differently?

We who are living during this season of edge, in this place of edge, live and move and have our very being at the intersection of something far greater than ourselves.

Of course it isn’t safe—if you let it, it might just turn your whole world upside down.

Of course it isn’t safe. But it is good.

So go on,

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.