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.

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 out a plate of freshly sliced tomatoes, that she had only just picked from the garden. I took a bite and I was both amazed and angry.

I was amazed at the flavor. It was so rich, so juicy, so…so tomato-y, but in a good way, not like a jar of tomato sauce way. I had never tasted anything like it. I was hooked.

My dad passed away that fall, but the next spring a piece of him lived on as I took on the role of planting the tomatoes in the garden.

It was about six months later, sometime around January of that following year, that the anger set in. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, only that I was eating a salad with vegetables that had come from the local super market. One of those vegetables was apparently called a tomato. But as I took a bite into the hard, flavorless and only slightly red item in my salad my taste buds rose up in protest. This is not a tomato! This tastes nothing like that one in July, fresh from the garden. I remember telling a friend, “They should have a different name for this—it should not be allowed to be called a tomato, it is so different in flavor.” Perhaps a bit extreme, but nonetheless, also somewhat true.  It felt a bit like a rip off, being sold this impostor, when I knew, when I had tasted, something so much better.

The story I read for you comes from the Bible, what’s often called the Old Testament, but what many prefer to call the Hebrew Scriptures, so as not to give the impression that something ‘old’ has been replaced by something ‘new.’

It is a story of a young man, Samuel, and an old priest, Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-10). Priest, in this case, is not catholic priest—this was way before there was any catholic church, and way before the story of Jesus.

This young man, Samuel, had been living in the temple his entire life. His mom, Hannah, had been barren and had prayed feverishly for a son. Her husband’s other wife—be careful when people tell you the Bible is all about good family values—had many sons, and made fun of Hannah for being barren. So Hannah went to the temple, and prayed. And this same priest, Eli, blessed her and told her she would receive what she had asked for. Sure enough, she had a son, named him Samuel, and in her thanks, dedicated him to the service of God.

So, Samuel, the son who had come from barrenness, grew up in the temple, like a son to Eli, the priest. Eli’s own sons, as it happened, were fairly corrupt, taking mordida, bribes, from the people and manipulating them to their own benefit.

Why in the world do you care about this? Just stay with me here…

So, as the story goes, Samuel is sleeping in the temple of the Lord, near the Ark of God—the very place that God was thought to dwell. But, also as the story goes, in those days messages from the Lord were very rare. Visions were quite uncommon. So it’s not really Samuel’s fault that, when he gets one such message, he has no idea what or who it is.

Three times God calls to Samuel and three times Samuel hears it, assumes it is the priest Eli, and goes to ask Eli what’s going on. But Eli, the representative, if you will, of organized religion, almost blind himself (ponder that one a bit) does not immediately realize it is God speaking either.

Finally, the third time it happens, Eli realizes what’s going on, realizes that it is God calling to the boy and tells him what to do. “When it happens again, here is how to answer: speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

And the Lord called to Samuel again as before and Samuel said Speak, your servant is listening.”

The thing is, the problem isn’t really the tomatoes. It’s just that tomatoes aren’t really meant to be eaten in January—at least in much of the northern hemisphere. They’re not in season.

But thanks to the wonders of globalization and industrialized agriculture, you can get that tomato for your salad in January almost as easily as July. The catch is, that January tomato has to come, more often than not, from far far away. So, not only is it picked while still green, but it has also been bred to withstand the long journey from the warmer climes to that kitchen table in Detroit, for instance. That breeding, for durability, means that the tomato can travel well without getting bruised and looking ugly in the grocery store.

The cost? Because there is quite a significant price to pay for that durability—that which allows a tomato to become bruised, the water and sugar content, is also what precisely what gives a tomato its flavor.

The answer, as far as tomatoes go, is not to give them up entirely—though some, after biting into that flavorless January version may be tempted to—understandably. If all I had ever eaten were the January tomatoes, I’d give them up too. The answer, it seems to me, is to eat them in season.

Now, that can be more involved than simply going to the grocery store on a whim—it means waiting until the warmer months return. If one is to attempt to grow tomatoes at home, it means cultivating the soil, creating the conditions in which the tomato plant can thrive. It means planting the seed, or the seedling, and nurturing it so that it can take root, watering it so that it can bear fruit. For me all it took was that one bite of the July tomato to make the extra effort worthwhile.

It seems to me that a lot of what has happened to ‘organized religion’ is that it has, over the centuries, been bred for durability often at the cost of flavor. Unfortunately a lot of what passes for religion is a lot like that January tomato—bland, flavorless, and not all that nutritious either.

It’s what had happened in the days of Eli and Samuel. As the story goes, even when God did speak, Eli, though devoted, was almost blind and didn’t seem able to hear. The young Samuel was hearing God, but didn’t know how to make sense of what he was hearing—he assumed it was coming from Eli—where else would a voice have been coming from in the middle of the night? Eli, though slow, to his credit finally did realize that it was God speaking. “Ah, right, that’s what’s going on…so, next time it happens, here is how to respond, speak, for your servant is listening.”

In other words, be present, be open, listen, pay attention, wake up to that which is calling you. Be in season, for the time is ripe.

Many of us here, myself included, have tasted enough January tomatoes to want nothing to do with them. So let’s be done with them.

July is just around the corner and there’s a garden to be tended…

Welcome to NOT CHURCH

Many of us grew up under some sort of organized religion, which felt like the rules part, rather than the uplifting part of soul to soul connections, understanding, compassion and insight, the miraculous part of life.

Whether it was a vengeful God, hell, needing to be saved from something through a figure like Jesus, or by way of books like Bibles, Korans, Torahs, nothing seemed natural, compassionate nor even particularly kind, forget loving.  Some of us stepped away, calling ourselves agnostic, even atheist, or nothing at all.

Maybe now we’ve simply gotten to a point of each of us asking, what is God, or G-d, Allah, to me, and allowing old structures inside to dissipate, dissolve.  Maybe, for our community, it has to do in part with moving into and being absorbed by a warm and loving, acceptant, somewhat permissive, community in a foreign country, but when we hook up with what really resonates inside us, life can open up and divine things occur, like we create an alternative Not Church, move mountains of resistance, make the cover of TIME.

Since many us are native English speakers living in a Spanish language place, we do lots of translating.  With Not Church, we’re translating on a whole ‘nother level: God is the spark of life inside each of us, that which breathes us, spirit.  And all of our spirits combined are the ultimate power–God.  Jesus is seen as a very wise man, and so are Muhammad, Moses, The Buddha, and many others.  And The Bible and others are very interesting and powerful books, having endured for thousands of years.

On this site you’ll find things that resemble sermons, meditations, prayers and other materials meant to inspire from Not Church services.  Stop by often, add your own inspirations, and if you find yourself in northern Baja, Mexico on the second Sunday of the month, do feel free join us.