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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 […]

By |2013-03-05T05:57:29-08:00September 11th, 2012|Talks|Comments Off on

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 […]

By |2013-03-05T05:58:02-08:00April 8th, 2012|Talks|Comments Off on breaking the bread of happiness

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

time magazine image from article about the

4 The Rise Of The Nones — Monday, Mar. 12, 2012
By AMY SULLIVAN

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

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 […]

By |2020-02-15T10:17:02-08:00March 12th, 2012|Articles|Comments Off on From “Time Magazine” —a great story about Not Church

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 […]

By |2013-03-05T05:58:13-08:00March 11th, 2012|Talks|Comments Off on on cracks, edge, and light

the heart of the matter

In the summer of 2002 I worked as a hospital chaplain. It was not by choice, but a required internship as part of my seminary training and preparation to become a Presbyterian minister. In fact, I had put off the internship from the summer before, deciding instead to take an intensive Greek course. Greek. As in, ‘it’s all Greek to me.’ That’s how excited I was to do the chaplain thing.

It’s not that I don’t have compassion for sick people, and not that I have a fear of hospitals in general. It was the death part that terrified me. Not even the dying part, so much as the dead part. I had heard stories of chaplains having to go to the morgue, to be with the family as they confirmed that their loved one was, in fact, the deceased. It terrified me.

Okay, it was the dying part too. I had never, at that point in my life, been with anyone as they died. I had no idea what to do. How to act. What to say. I had a friend who’s father had died a few years prior, and I vividly remember being with the family in the hospital as they awaited the inevitable. Their pastor was not available for some reason, so a rookie, stand-in pastor came to the hospital to console the family. All I remembered was how incredibly awkward and how, well, how inadequate he seemed to the task.

It was the fear of being that guy that I brought with me to Mission Hospital in the summer of 2002. But what I hadn’t counted on was that it would be life, more than death, that would end up disturbing me to my very core.

The story I’m about to read you, of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, is a disturbing one–perhaps one of the most troubling stories told about Jesus in the Bible. It’s not typically a go-to story if you’re on PR for team Jesus.

Mark 7:24-30

From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of  Syrophenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

I warned you–it’s kind of a random story, isn’t it? Sure, there’s the whole demon possession thing–that’s […]

By |2013-03-05T05:58:19-08:00February 12th, 2012|Talks|Comments Off on the heart of the matter

John’s Prayer from our February 12th gathering

WE BELIEVE
THAT DESPITE ALL OF OUR DIFFERENCES
BENEATH ALL OF OUR DIVERSITY
THERE IS A FORCE THAT BINDS US
FOREVER TOGETHER
IN SPITE OF TIME
AND DEATH
AND THE SPACE BETWEEN THE STARS
May love be with us in all that we do
Amen, Shalom, AHO

By |2013-03-05T05:58:26-08:00February 12th, 2012|Inspirations|Comments Off on John’s Prayer from our February 12th gathering

samuel and summer tomatoes

Good morning. How crazy it is to see you all here. But how fun.

Many of you know that we are gathered here today at the prompting of Anna, on behalf of Doug’s mom Jenny, who, on her last visit to Baja from Pennsylvania, missed her Presbyterian church.  Conveniently enough, we just happen to have a Presbyterian minister in town.

Anna brought this up to a few of us, and asked if perhaps we could gather for some sort of church, and asked if I would be willing to lead us in this. “So wait, it has got to feel enough like church for Jenny to feel ‘at home’ but not so much like church that the rest of everyone would take off running in the other direction…” It seemed like a fun challenge.  I am, of course, a bit crazy.

So, this is a bit of an experiment. It’s a bit of a fine line to be walking, trying to use language that is open to all and doesn’t unnecessarily offend or exclude. That is our intent—please forgive us, forgive me, if it is not completely successful and know that the intention is to give us all space to gather together as a community and connect with that which is more. Some people call it God. Some chafe at the word. Some prefer Spirit or Life Force, Essence or Energy.  All language is limited, isn’t it? How can we possibly describe something of which we can only see glimpses? For me, rather than making me want to give up the whole endeavor, that tasting of a piece, but not the whole, encourages me to want to go deeper. So, take from today what you will. For all of this is simply the finger pointing toward the moon, but not the moon itself.

Most of you know that I love to work in the garden. In fact, you might be sick of hearing about the garden by now. Sorry. When I say ‘work in the garden’ it’s not so much the vision of a victorian woman in her bonnet with a basket, trimming flowers to put in a vase. When I say work in the garden it is more like a pick ax, a lot of rocky ground, and filthy cut off jeans shorts. I love working in the garden. In fact, that’s probably where I will be this afternoon—and I’ve got a lot of arugula, if you want to come pick some you are welcome to.

I haven’t always been a gardener. In fact, I can fairly accurately pinpoint the beginnings of my green thumb. It was the summer of 2004. I had just moved back from Scotland, to be near my parents for the summer, as my dad was in the last months of his struggle with cancer. As it happened, he had planted tomatoes that spring. One evening, as we sat down to lovely summer dinner on the patio, my mom brought […]

By |2013-03-05T05:58:33-08:00January 15th, 2012|Talks|Comments Off on samuel and summer tomatoes