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Reflection December 14

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Reflections

Isaiah 61: 1,4; Luke 1:51, 52,53

Not business as usual

Dear friends,

Last week we talked about roads, about flattening and straightening out the road of society and leveling the playing field. We also talked about the potential crookedness in our soul.  Today we talk about texts that do not straighten things out, but turn them on their head.  It is a different way of looking at things.  They are both valid.  When you work on a piece of land you have to worry about the contours and the grading, but you also have to stir and till the soil, plough it in such a way as to bring what is hiding behind the hardpan to the surface.  Isaiah speaks of good news to the poor, about building on ruins.  Old “devastations” will be raised” again.  Mary in her song brings out how she is a lowly woman who becomes powerful.  The passages for today echo with a deep hunger for turning the world upside, a hope that things won’t be business as usual.  After the fall of the United Kingdom of Israel there has been nothing but suffering for centuries, exile to exile, occupier to occupier.  There is a huge hunger for change that gets poured into the joy over the Messiah.  If we read the texts over again we can find ourselves.  We can sense our own helplessness.  In this country alone there is plenty of that and the frustration is experienced in different ways and gets directed to different people, just look at the news in the last few weeks:  there are people crying for legal residence status (as well as against it),  there are people yelling in distrust at the government, there are people raising their arms in protest at police brutality, there are people livid about abuses of the CIA and of there are people up in arms about the new  perks for Wall Street in the congressional budget, Wall Street that always seems to win, partly because we all put our money on it.  A sense of helplessness is common ground for all of us.  But then comes the story of Mary who is a lowly woman who carries in her the divinely fertilized hope of all helpless people.  Hope grows inside of her.  Just two days ago the Feast of Guadalupe as celebrated next door.  As you may know our neighbor church is a National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  On December 9, 1531, a farmer called Juan Diego outside Mexico City had a vision of the Virgin Mary.  She gave him Spanish roses that left an image of her on his tilma, or cloak.  This happened in a town where there used to be an Aztec goddess worshipped.   Novelist Carlos Fuentes said that :you cannot be a Mexican and not believe in the Virgin; Judy King said that the Virgin of Guadalupe is the rubber band that ties together the diverse peoples of Mexico.  Writer Octavio Paz said that Mexicans all believe in only two things: The Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.(see Wikipedia)  The Virgin has become the symbol of the helpless and the hopeless in all of Latin America.  Miguel Hidalgo and Emiliano Zapata in the war of Independence and the Revolutionary war both rode with Virgin of Guadalupe flags into battle.  The Virgin reminds Mexicans that hope will rise again, the lowly will rise and the order of things will be turned upside down.  And if you think you’re helpless, just look south.

A mining tycoon from Australia by the name of Glasheen lost all of his millions in a stockmarket crash.  His family fell apart. He retreated to some island off the tropical coast of Australia and now lives in a shack, wears no shirts and lives from fishing and growing some simple crops.  He still believes in the stockmarket and is eternally optimistic. The actor Russell Crow stopped by on his boat and had dinner with him.  Poor and lowly he has become a much more interesting character.  His world was turned upside down.

Friends, as Christians we often like our world to be nice and tidy, organized and predictable, but we live in a world where economic and now even climate forces are in constant upheaval. In fact those who want to save our planet are fighting those who want to save the economy. It’s ironic.  The Bible has always known that. The only way to get to greatness is through lowliness. We cannot become great people of character unless we are willing to be lowly.  We have to get in touch with the lowly inside ourselves. None of us are mighty very long. Our texts say that loud and clear. Ancient Chinese thinker Lao Tzu wrote that” he who wants to shine will not shed light, he who wants to be valued will go unnoticed.”  Friends,  we can only get to God through an awareness of our lowliness, becoming one with all those who feel helpless in world.  We all get our appointment with helplessness at one point or another.  God loves those who are helpless, not because God enjoys our suffering, but because they see life without the distractions and the pretense.  Mary has it figured out. So does Isaiah.  Friends, we spend so much of our life trying not to appear lowly, but lowliness is our true condition. In the awareness of that lowliness we can encounter God. God will transform it into greatness. Thanks be to God.

 
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Reflection December 7

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Reflections

Isaiah 40:3-6; Mark 1:1-3.

The road to here, the road to there

In the film “Wild” which is about to open in theaters,  a young woman driven by her past walks along the length of the Pacific Crest Trail.  By moving ahead the trail she tries to leave the road before behind.  At one point she has an epiphany and says:” What if I went back in time and I would not do a single thing differently?  What if all the things I did were the things that got me here?” Friends, before us are the Advent passage that bring out images similar to the ones evoked by the movie trailer.  They are poetic, beautiful words about crying in the wilderness, about making road and paths straight, about people being like grass, blending into a landscape that will finally swallow them up.  The American West is blessed with these images and landscapes.  The more time you will spend in it, the more it will surprise you.  Last July Daniel I made a circle through part of the West, through the Wild Owyhee River Country. One of the stops was the town of Owyhee, on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation on the Idaho-Nevada border.  It was the first place I served after I was ordained.  The Owyhee river continues northwest into Idaho and into southeastern Oregon.  This is region is one of the most unspoiled regions in the United States.  Driving across the Idaho border into Oregon I had expected dry land and ranches, but this was my surprise.  Between the Idaho border and Bend in Oregon there was pretty much nothing. It was as if people just went around it or over in at night so that they didn’t notice this land of stark, arid beauty.  It is the kind of land that you could easily get lost in and never be found.   

The Bible texts for today really bring home that vision of wild land that needs to be tamed.  High places need to be flattened out and roads need to be straightened.  This is what often we have done in the US, put a straight interstate down and blown holes in mountains just to make them disappear, great feats of engineering. We have even allowed oil and car companies to destroy the train and tram culture of the great American cities in the first half of the twentieth century so that there could be more highways,  in the process separating us from our neighbors. But it’s the meandering and curving back roads that may be treacherous, but also more beautiful.  Of course we understand that text is using these images as a metaphor for the political and spiritual life of the people.  Isaiah and John the Baptist know that the hilly, craggy, rocky desert country of Eastern Judea will not ever be leveled nor will there be straight roads.  The words are about straightening out the human soul.  It seems that the film “Wild” has an understanding of that.  It appears to be more about how the land reflects the soul of the person walking.  This is the message: that we need to straighten out what is crooked and shifty in the church, in our society and in our soul.  Doing that is what we need to do to face the Messiah as a child.  That is how we wait and anticipate.  In the movie trailer for “Wild” a man who gives the main character a ride, says he has left behind a lot things in his life just as she is trying to do and she asks him:”do you regret any of it.”  He answers:” I didn’t have any choice, there was never a fork in the road for me.”  Of course that’s whole other discussion: how much we control our destiny, how many choices we truly have. The American in us says we control our destiny, the Asian in us says we don’t, the mature and realistic Christian in us blends them and says: you are responsible for your choices, but there is also God’s mysterious grace at work in our lives. Amen.

But, friends, in the final account, do we want the road in our lives to be straight or do we want it to be crooked?  In some of that we have a choice, in others we don’t.  I have talked about the things that need to be made straight already, like racism in American society that bubbles up in Ferguson or Staten Island or attacks on the Presidential daughters, exposing the racism and classism and sexism and agism and arrogance in all of us.  In other words, we must level the playing field for all people.  We have talked about the evil and violence and endless wars. We have talked about how we must give our earth’s atmosphere and its rivers and oceans a break, how we must flow with nature more than subdue it.  This also means flattening out the obstacles in ourselves to compassion and straighten out our ego and wipe out the destructive side of our competitiveness.

Yet there is also the crooked road of life. No matter how old we are, we can look back and see something that’s a lot more like mountain paths than it is like flat , straight highway 80, say,in Eastern Nebraska.  As much as we all want to be on cruise control, none of our lives follows a clear, straight, flat path.  We get blown off course, to mix the metaphors.  The future will not be any different.  Life is a series of twists and turns that we try hard to manage, but never completely have a handle on. So to summarize in a bringing the two roads together: God’s grace meets us on the twisting road of life and in response we level the playing field so peace and justice can one day reign. May God bless our journey.

 
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Coach’s corner

Every thought and action count

Dear friends,  In the French film “Amelie” a young woman who grew up isolated largely as the result of her parents has thoughts and take actions that seem innocuous but have a decisive impact on the Parisian world around her, especially when she consciously tries to make people happy.

On Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, at the edge of Korea town, there stands a simple monument featuring two sheets of metal with the most famous words of Robert F. Kennedy carved out.  I assume it was put there because not far from there he was assassinated.  This is what they say: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”The language strikes us as very male-centered now, but other than that the words are still very relevant. What strikes me about many of Robert Kennedy’s great quotes is that they were often about people doing a small thing that has an impact down the road.

The ancient Greek thinker Archimedes is supposed to have said: “Give me a place where I can stand and I will move the world.” It expresses a similar sentiment.

We have entered that season of anticipation we call Advent once more.  Again we wait for the calls to repentance in the desert by primitively dressed men with outlandish diets, the mysterious prophecies of the Messiah’s birth and the light that keeps building (even though much of it is stolen by blatant commercialism now). Again we wait for the birth of a child that will say and do great things in a time and place that do not seem to matter, but wind up mattering more than all the words and actions that came before and have come ever since.  How weighty these words have been and how transformative and hope giving the actions!  He wished to have an impact with love and kindness, He bent history in unprecedented way, He created a great ripple effect, He stood firmly and moved the world.

In the last month we have thought together about how much light we bring to the world as a congregation and about how we must be connected to the communities around us through listening. We need to bring those together. As I wish you a meaningful Christmas season I hope that as a congregation you will find ways to pay attention to your thoughts and connect them to the thoughts of others in the congregation so that you will create new currents of energy that can transform lives around you and decrease suffering.  Your thoughts and actions as a member of the Parkview family matter and have consequences.  May they have the maximum impact in bringing compassion to the world God loves so.  During Advent may you wait thoughtfully, actively and gratefully and may God bless our ministry. See you in church! Aart

 
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Reflection November 23

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Reflections

Ezekiel 34:  4-6, 15: Ephesians 1:15,16

Thanksgiving humbug

How do we get to gratitude, how do we get to being thankful?  Does it take a major scare of some sort or seeing your neighbor go through something which you avoided?  I have already said the message on thanksgiving Sunday is likely to be to most boring of the year:”give thanks.” Unless, unless we dig a little deeper. This is what I am proposing today. So I wanted to start by us complaining which is the opposite of being thankful it seems.  In our lectionary reading in Ezekiel we find God complaining about how the people are not being well looked after.  These are God’s sheep.  God is not happy and eventually says God will personally guarantee that the people will be taken care of.  This passage can help us, because if God can complain so can we, provided the complaint is legitimate and not made just to be difficult.  I am sure you have all felt at one point or another that when you were sincerely venting your frustration or disappointment or hurt  and someone told you to be grateful for what you had, your frustration just got deeper, because not only are those problems you complained about still there, now you feel guilty for being such a whiner.  It occurred to me that in the church we have two competing narratives or stories.  One narrative is: we come to church, we forget our cares, we praise and thank God and feel better.  The other is the narrative: come to church and be with people you can really share your problems with without worrying what they might think.  In a really healthy church you get both the thanksgiving and the venting.  In the work of the pastor you get both these narratives.  The venting is what you get more of during the week through counseling: people expressing their misery to you but then thanking you for listening.  On Sunday, other than the prayer concerns, it is more a thankful celebration.  Both the complaining and the thankfulness have their dangers.  Complaining can be a way of life.  In Japanese the word is monku-monku.  There is a story of a pastor hanging up a sign in a part of the church. It said:”No monku zone.” Some people always complain it seems. We are wary of that.  We are also aware of how in many cultures criticism and complaint is a way of motivating children and the damage that did.  Boris Johnson, the mayor of London has just written a biography of Winston Churchill and he talks about how Churchill’s father Randolph used to call his son a “wastrel” in his letters to Winston in boarding school.  After he left power Churchill wrote a story where he imagines his dead father sitting next to him as a kind of ghost and he starts telling him about his life and the moment he is about to tell his father how he became successful beyond expectation, whoof the ghost is gone. Charlie Rose who was interviewing Boris Johnson, then said:” Do you know how many men I have had at this table who pretty much said the same thing ‘I did ok, Pop.’”  Complaining can be damaging when it is used to manipulate people, friends.  People spend too much time of their life disproving the complaints people have had about them. Those critical voices are still with me. That kind of complaining can never be good in the long run. But in some ways complaining is also like sneezing or going to the bathroom.  Being positive and thankful all the time is great quality, as long as does not become glib or superficial or condescending.

So the question again is: “how do we get to gratitude? We often treat it as a diversion or distraction from the burdens of life:” yes, you have it hard, but be grateful for what’s not wrong.” But this only lasts a moment.  Then we are back to thinking about our issues and problems.  But we are learning something here.  It’s not thanksgiving or complaining and venting.  This is both.  They are both part of living effectively.  Without the thanks we become sour. Without the venting we become a ball of nerves.   Thanksgiving is not a denial of our problems.  In that sense I don’t think the story of the first Thanksgiving is the right one.  I think someone spun that one to make it an idyllic scene.  I am sure it wasn’t a perfect community and neither was there perfect harmony between the Pilgrims and the indigenous people. We know the diet was probably quite different.  I bet there was some complaining going on.   I bet there was sorrow.  So in a weird way complaint and thanksgiving  may be related.  It is in fully knowing the obstacles life throws before us that we can be fully thankful, that in spite of the things we feel like complaining about, joy is still waiting for us.  The Psalm writer whose words we find in our call to worship did not write because his life was smooth but because despite his struggles a voice rose up inside him.   Paul did not write in Ephesians an expression of sincere thankfulness because he was having a great day, he wrote fully aware of the trials and dangers around him.  Friends, thanksgiving is the joy that awaits us as we take stock of our challenges and navigate through and around them. Thanks be to God!

 
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Reflection November 16

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Reflections

Matthew 25: 14-18; I Thessalonians 5: 4,5

Let your light shine

I have talked about ways people can let their light shine in their world and the world.   We have seen how there are people who do not hide the talent they were given.  Let us recap what we learned from the text.  In Matthew three people are given currency called talents.   One gets 2 and makes another 2, one gets 5 and makes another five and one gets one and buries it.   To us living in the more affluent part of the world, we can definitely relate to the person who made his or her money go along way, but for the poor the action of the one talent-person is that surprising.  In developing countries it’s easier to get more money when you have some and incredibly hard to get some more if you have almost nothing.  To hide the talent is not so dumb.  Your child’s school or the doctor in the hospital might demand it some time and they will want it right there and then.  Of course the parable isn’t really about money, it is how we prepare for the Kingdom of God.   Now most Bible stories can be understood and appreciated on different levels. Perhaps we are not ready to hear and appreciate on one level, but we are on another.  So I am proposing today we take the word “talent” literal in a different way, a talent we possess, something we can do for the world.  In I Thessalonians Paul speaks about Christians as “children of the light” who do not live in darkness. He is talking about the hope and liberation faith provides.  Again it has to do with the kingdom of God.  Remember that the people in Jesus’ and Paul’s time lived much more with a sense of the end of the world than we do.  We know that at one point human destruction will be inevitable due to temperature change or heavenly bodies crashing in or super volcanoes erupting. Eventually we’ll go the way of the dinosaurs. But not anytime soon.  We can understand Paul’s words on different levels too.  So I am proposing that the light we carry as children of God includes the light that each of us individually have to shine here on earth.  This is where our two texts come together. Our God given light and our God-given talent are perhaps close to being one and the same thing.  

Kim Addinizio, a poet with depression, wrote in the New York Times last week( November 14, 2014: “Why I don’t kill myself?”):  “I am never going to be free of anxiety. I will always observe that every silver lining has its cloud. In the song Gillian Welch wrote’ ,some girls are bright as morning and some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind. ‘” Addinizio continues:”I like the word ‘blessed.’ I like to think that demons can sometimes be angels, that probing through the mire, we can recognize the glint of small things that sustain us.”  Friends, there is the light.  Addinizio can still continue with her talent to the world and perhaps others can shine a glint of light into her world of depression.

A Scandinavian scientist found a way to freeze and to move light (NPR, November 14, 2014.  Since light is the fastest thing known in the universe, this is a major accomplishment.  She did it by superheating sodium atoms and then making them cold again, then hitting them with light which then gets encoded in the atoms so that it remains there. Stumped, are you? Well, so am I.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful, friends, if we could take light and move it from one place to another? Isn’t that what faith is about: Moving light from God to the world?  The light of God’s love hits us and we sit frozen and something happens, the light becomes part of us.

In the movie the Year of Living Dangerously, an Australian journalist meets a photographer called Billy Kwan who guides him through the mystery of a South-East Asian country on the verge of a coup.  Billy’s philosophy is summed in a single statement:” Don’t think about the major issues. You do what you can about the misery in front of you. You add your light to the sum of all light?”  Friends, we must add our light, our talent, to the sum of all light and the sum of all talent.

Friends, I ask this question or similar ones regularly about our congregation here: “how can we shed more light on the world around us, how can we bring more light to bear, are we as congregation still burying some of our talents and still hiding some of our light?” Friends, let us not bury our talents our gifts.  Let us not hide our light.  Let us always be focused on bringing the light we have to bring to the world that is frozen in fear and depression and poverty and desperation.  This is what medical worker in Africa are doings. This is what helping professionals and teachers and church people are doing here. May God help us answer that question over and over again. Thanks be to God.

 
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Reflection November 9

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Misc., Reflections

Joshua 24: 15-18; Jonah 1:1-3

Forks in the road

Dear friends, I used to be a great fan of the Muppets and in the first Muppet movie Fuzzy Bear and Kermit the Frog are driving down the road in Fuzzie Bear’ s Studebaker (Fuzzie called the Studebaker the “Bear’s natural habitat”).  Kermit says that they are supposed to turn right at the fork in the road.  As they approach a spot where two roads converge there actually is a huge dinner fork sticking up by the road. What makes that extra funny is that Kermit is surprised by that fork in the road for a moment and Fuzzy is completely unaware.

In some ways we do not have to make as many decisions on the road anymore. With GPS and Google maps we are told to turn.  But once in a while we do have to pick where to turn and we do so based on our analysis of the situation or of our instinct.

A week or so ago a young teenager called Brooklyn took a picture of a young man named Alex  she fancied. Alex is a bagger at a Target in Prosper, Texas.  This picture went viral, but for no apparent reason.  People just kept on clicking on it and twittering it on.  But nobody really knew why.  There wasn’t anything special about the boy or the situation as far as anyone could tell.  Some say some internet company sponsored the craze just to show the potential of marketing on the web.  What it really exemplies is the consequences of little clicks on devices and how with minimal motions of our fingers we can have an impact.

Let us recap what we learned from our encounter with the texts earlier. Joshua is facing the people in a moment of recommitment. They are back in the land of their ancestors, but a lot of other people have moved into the vacuum and the Hebrew people will have to learn to live with them.  So here is a practical and at once spiritual and moral question by Joshua:” Do you still want to stick with God,” or do you want to go with the gods of the people around you?  Think of the consequences, friends.  If they say: we’ll try out another god and shelve their faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob,  Hebrew faith might have gone the way of the Greek and Roman gods.  And the way you and I came to Christ was through the faith of Israel. The Church might not have been born.  So this was an enormously important decision, just as important as the decision of the early Christians to open up the faith in Christ to all the world’s people instead of to the Jews alone.  Jonah is asked to be obedient and warn the people of Nineveh, but he does not listen. He makes the decision to board a ship and goes in an entirely different direction. In his case God has a way of bringing him back to his task, but at the cost of near shipwreck for his fellow passengers. The story of Jonah illustrates how decisions matter.

Now think of yourself being in these pews.  What decision brought you here, what fork in the road were you facing?  Friends, sometimes in order to be fully aware of the decisions we will make for the future is to review our decisions of the past.  We are given a certain number of momentous decisions in our lives.  Some we take without thinking, because in our context and culture and family that decision is understood.  We think there is no alternative.  This may even be the thought of young European Muslims who decide to travel to Syria to fight with the Islamic State. They may think it is the only thing they can do, but years later the blood and murder of women and children will haunt them as they raise their own.  Friends, you and I might have had the same face and haircut or even similar clothes if we had made very different decisions about our life. We would have different spouses or none at all, we may have had other jobs or none at all, we may have lived in different climates. Our world would be different.  It is true, God goes with us and God’s grace is always present with us, but we are free to choose. Our choices have not been pre-determined.

The Kung Fu master Steve de Marco supposedly said the following: “every decision we make and every action we take has meaning and affects everything else, now and always.”(in Awakenings, Asian Wisdom for everyday).  What this means is that not every thought we have or every movement we make will radically change life as we know it, but it will have some impact, some consequence which reverberates through creation.  No action happens in isolation.

So friends, I would like to think about your faith in particular, like the people of Israel under Joshua’s leadership, how has the way you said yes or no to God changed you and changed your world? We may say: “I didn’t think about it.” But our thoughts and actions have consequences and we are responsible for them.  God is with us as we make them, but we must choose. “Not thinking about it” is not an excuse.  May we live consciously every day and may God bring us back time and time again to where we are supposed to go.

 
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Reflection November 2

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Reflections

Matthew 23: 10, 11, 12; Acts 17: 22-28

The Christian and other faiths

Humility comes slowly in life and it comes in fits and starts.  Humility is not our natural instinct.  It does not work well in a survival of the fittest strategy. It is not easy to be humble when you consider yourself smarter than others. It is not easy to be humble when you consider yourself more powerful than others, it is not easy to be humble when you consider yourself better dressed, better looking or more refined than others.  When you consider yourself to have the best god or the best faith, humility is even harder to come by.  So when Jesus says in Matthew: the humble will be exalted and the arrogant brought low, we just pay lip service to it. We read right over it. But this is a question I raised for myself after I read that particular lectionary reading?  What if Jesus meant that even should have humility over against those who have different faith?  Could that be? 

In Acts 17 Paul goes to Athens and Paul who can be quite fierce, is very humble or at least his strategy is.  He has arrived at the very center of the polytheism of the Mediterranean.  The gods the people worshipped there had been taken over by the Romans, albeit with different names and still feature very much in European literature and in Western languages, even though no one worships those gods anymore.  Paul knows he has to find the language to speak about the One God.  So he finds an altar to an Unknown God, perhaps put there as an act of humility of the Greeks, or just in an attempt to cover their bases.  He uses that as an entry to his preaching of the truth of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the One God.   He does not put down the Greeks, he approaches them from the viewpoint of their tradition.

This is a Christian church and here profess God as coming in Christ as the hope of the world. To this we are committed. Without it we would become just a social club.  But I thought I would sum up what I referred to earlier already and that is what I have learned from other faiths and philosophies during my work and our travels overseas.  I think Christians fear doing this because we are afraid it might dilute the power and singularity of our faith message.  I think appreciating certain parts of other traditions can enrich the experience of our own faith. Of course we have no problem with the gods of the Greeks and Romans because we see them just as part of an ancient culture that no longer exists.  But this is true today, of the living religions. Most of religious life, including Christian religious life is culture.  Most of religious life is not about the essence of faith; it is sounds, and sights and smells and textures grown up around  a faith.  Most of it could be stripped away and the faith would still be there.  Now when we look at others religions it is sometimes had to separate the faith from the culture and maybe it is the only the believers of those cultures who can make that judgment.  But here goes: I have learned from Jews that they have a unique intimate spirituality that really treats God as a parent you can speak to and argue with and ask questions of.  I also learned that they have over the ages felt a special role in representing God on earth and that many of the great innovations in Western thought have come from the Jews.  I have learned from Muslims I have met that the majority are not fanatical or violent or even angry, that when they fast they can show enormous discipline and experience hardship for their faith and that they continue the emphasis on cleanliness and purity that we see in the Old Testament and also that faith is really a simple matter.  I have learned from Balinese Hindus that the beauty of the earth and the worship of God are closely related, that the divine is to be found everywhere and that the creation of art is an extension of spirituality.  From Buddhists, and especially Zen Buddhists, I have learned realism and the necessity to embrace completely the fullness of each moment of life and that life is fleeting and temporary.  From Mormons I have learned how well communities can take of their own and how living a “clean” life can be a worthy goal.   From Roman Catholics I have learned that you can stick a whole bunch of diverse people under one roof during one worship service and that they can all belong in spite of their theology because they are all “Catholic,” that just because you have a prolonged crisis of faith you don’t get rejected by the Church, for it is through the Church you are saved.  I have learned from Christian fundamentalists that we should revere the Bible and put ourselves under the authority of it and that we should assume to find God’s wisdom in all the text even if at first we do not find it. I have learned from African-American Christians that out of intense suffering can come great spiritual joy and liberation and that God is intimately involved with the sufferings of our lives and that God desires our liberation.  Friends, may we be so secure in our Christian faith that we can humbly hear the wisdom of others who also sincerely and peacefully seek God.  May God help us in that endeavor. Thanks be to God

 
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Coach’s corner

Voices outside the Narthex

When I am in my office getting ready for the worship service, it is always nice to hear familiar voices in the narthex as they come in and meet the greeters.  Those are the voices I recognize and pay attention to.  But there are voices outside the building also. Those I don’t recognize and cannot hear very well.

Jessica Tate in her blog NEXT Church regularly pulls on wisdom from community organizing as she thinks about being the church in the 21st century. In this month’s edition she writes about developing children’s ministry. This is what she has to say: “’If you build it, they will come.’ We held that maxim for several years in children’s ministry at the congregation I first served. It is not true. ‘We need better curriculum,’ I thought. ‘One that more fully embraces the Presbyterian theology we preach,…. one that takes children and their spiritual questions seriously, and is easy for our teachers to use. That is what good curriculum should do….’ So we researched and acquired a new curriculum. The children did not come. ‘Our teachers need better training so they will be more invested, more prepared, and developing spiritually themselves.’ We did more training. Our teachers were ready! The children did not come. ‘We need better snacks, more play time, less choir, more choir, more Bible drills, parent education, family events… ‘the list went on and on and we tried it all. They did not come. I thought the stagnation of the children’s ministry was simply a matter of technical fixes and re-energizing volunteers. Two years in we realized we were wrong and we were frustrated. All of us believed in the value of forming our children in faith, but we couldn’t get more than a dozen families engaged. We didn’t know what else to try.” So she got training, which completely reframed the ways in which she understood how to do her job as a pastor, namely, “by working primarily relationally within and outside of my congregation (as opposed to programmatically).” She found what it was really like for people in her community. She found problems with affordable housing and affordable dental care were some of the obstacles to church attendance. She also concluded that relationships are essential to the community’s life together, that people will act on their interest when they are able to name what that interest is, and, because lives are constantly changing, programs needed to be continually dis-organized and re-organized.

That Jessica Tate was talking about children’s ministry is much less important for us is what she learned: really listening to people and having them listen to themselves in the process causes change, not trying out programs. This is something we can learn from. Finding a strategy and a plan was all about listening and developing relationships.  Isn’t that what we found in her exploration groups: we wanted to come up with great plans and what we got was people listening and getting to know each other.  I notice how it has tightened the bonds of people at Parkview.  Sometimes we need to do a lot of listening and developing relationships before we can come up with big plans. That’s why exploration takes time and that is why we are taking more time for it.

But what about the voices outside of our narthex, outside of our building, outside of our fence? Don’t we have to listen to them to?  Does it matter that you are on the corner of T and 8th streets in downtown Sacramento? Or is the location unimportant, as long it is in comfortable driving distance?  To what degree is Parkview’s future tied to the future of the community around you? Is it possible to develop more relationships with the people and organizations around the church so that you can listen and find out what they are looking for and how come they cannot find it? Can we develop a listening strategy with the community? Maybe people don’t know yet that they need a place like Parkview, because they have never experienced it. May God help you find the answers to these questions and many more.  Thanks for all you do! See you in church.  Aart

 

 
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Reflection October 26

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Misc.

Deuteronomy 34; Matthew 22: 34-40

The narrow road home

An Australian writer named Richard Flanagan just won the prestigious Man/Booker prize for literature with his novel “A narrow road to the deep north,” based on his father’s experience on the Burma railroad.  The title of the book is taken from the famous Japanese haiku poet Basho.  Although I have not read the book, the title appealed to me as I was reflecting of the journey of the people of Israel. Moses cannot enter the Promised Land, frail and old as he is. Because the leader is not allowed to go, he is just allowed to see from a distance, is symbolic.  Martin Luther King, in Memphis, appealed to the memory of Moses when he said: ”I have seen the Promised Land, but I may not get there with you.”  I also thought of the comedy in theaters right now and how its title would also be an appropriate reflection title for today.  It is “this is where I leave you.”  Because that is what Moses could say. In fact I can clearly imagine him saying that.   And I can also imagine the people after all their complaining suddenly feeling very insecure without their leader.  It is a clear journey they must take. The landscape lies clearly stretched out before them: they must cross a desert landscape, from the heights across the Jordan down to Jericho, one of the oldest towns and lowest places on earth and then climb up toward Jerusalem and then spread out over the land, each group of descendants of Jacob taking their place.  From there they will live a history that is even more volatile than the history chapter they are closing off.  There will be Judges and three kings under the united kingdom, then the kingdom will split into two, next comes a slow crumbling of the nation, two exiles in the east which will empty the whole country over again.  Then only a small number will return, making another journey home to a land they have never seen and they will settle and rebuild the Temple.   All along they have to keep their eyes on one great commandment: “Love the Lord with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul.” The story of the Old Testament is pretty much the story of how well the people kept his commandment.  Mostly they didn’t keep it, with terrible consequences. 

Friends, we talked earlier about the reformation and about American history and how these histories were also bloody and bitter.  We too have that same commandment to follow: “Love the Lord with all you heart and all your mind and all your soul,” but Jesus adds another commandment to it “and your neighbor as yourself.”  Love for God Who loves us translates into loving our neighbor.  These are the principles we must carry on with, in this land we call America and a Presbyterian church that stands solidly in the Reformed tradition.  But that is a narrow road to walk. It is not easy to do.  Loving a Being we cannot see is hard for most of us.  Loving the neighbors who annoy us isn’t much easier.  But the Bible throws out this challenge: “do these things and you will get it right every time.” And, friends, as Christians our lives are a record of how well we have done that.   You may have seen these ancient posters of the wide and the narrow road. They were a bit silly.  The wide road had all the sinful acts including having lots of fun and parties and the narrow road was a path of sacrifice and prayer. It isn’t like that of course. The Bible doesn’t say we can’t enjoy our lives, but it is still a narrow road. We are constantly losing the trail, veering left and right, high and low.

I try to stop once a week at the school to work with one sixth grade student and last week I found him on a bench at the edge of the playground in the warm October sunshine as kids of other grades were running and exercising all around him. All very distracting for a kid like him.  He was busy writing one line over and over again:” treat others the way you want to be treated. Treat other the way you want to be treated. Treat others the way you want to be treated. ” That’s us friends, on that bench, that’s the story of our lives: having to remind ourselves over and over again that we must treat others the way we want to be treated. We’re finding ourselves on that bench writing that sentence.

And now you may ask the question: ”Aart, how do you do this ‘love the Lord your God thing?’”  My answer would be: start with thinking of God as loving You, totally and unconditionally. Could you love such a Being?  Religious people have filled our minds so much with the idea of the judging God, that we don’t see things in balance.  The judging God is our default image.  But God is at the heart of it loving.  “God so loved the world.” Everything begins and ends with that. May God inspire us.

 

 
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Reflection October 19

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Reflections

Exodus 33:18-23; Matthew 22: 20,21, 22

Is anything holy anymore?

Last week there was a soccer match between the Republic of Serbia and Albania.  These regions or countries have never liked each other.  A mini helicopter with an Albanian flag on it was flown into the stadium, brought in by an extreme nationalist group.  Immediately a row broke out without the players and the game had to be cancelled.  The conflict between Christian Orthodox Serbians and Southeastern European Muslims from Kosovo and Albania dates back at least 500 years and involves the history of the Ottoman empire.  Holiness and hatred have been passed on from generation to generation, all mixed together, with holy sites and remembered massacres holding some of the same ground.

            Sometimes what makes our beliefs sacred is what makes others profane. The holier our traditions, the more despicable we consider the traditions of others to be.  This is what we see in Syria and Iraq.  Isis is hated and feared by Sunnis but not as much the Shiites, for their religion traditions diverged from the Sunni traditions for more than a thousand years, with each vile act remembered over and over again, from generation to generation.  Sunnis cannot identify with the holiness of the Shiites and vice versa. This is partly what keeps the Turkish army out of the conflict even though some of their units can see battles in Syria from its territory.

            Friends, what we consider holy is a fickle thing.  For some people their national flag is a holy thing, like Albanians and …. Some Americans.  We, by the way, keep the flag here in the church not because of that, but as an acknowledgment that we are allowed to worship courtesy of this nation’s commitment to religious freedom.  It’s kind of like flying the flag of the country where you dock your boat. But I think to many American Christians anything happening to an American flag will make people a lot more upset than something happening to a Bible. 

            Let us summarize what our texts tell us today.  In Exodus 33 we find a passage of such great beauty that it is stunning. Moses wants to see God’s glory, but that is a no no, for God is too holy to behold. But there is also a sense of intimacy, of God wanting to be present to God’s beloved servant.  So Moses is to stand in the cleft of a rock and God passes by him.  All Moses is allowed to see is a part of God’s glory.  This passage expresses holiness like almost no other in the Bible, but also intimacy.  Then in Matthew we see the opposite.  There is no holiness there.  Just a coin with the image of the emperor on it.  Jesus is put in a trick position again. He has to choose between being a Jewish nationalist and hater of the Romans or as respectful of Roman authority.  Once again Jesus skillfully evades the issue.  “give to Caesar hat belongs to Caesar.”  In a way he devalues the coin by saying God does not care about it.  It is a worldly thing.  This is not what it is about.  The idea of taxes to the emperor becomes a footnote to the conversation.  The coin is not holy.

            Victoria Osteen, wife of hugely successful tv preacher Joel Osteen might beg to differ. She said recently:” When you come to church, when you worship ‘Him,’ you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”  (The Christian Century, October 15, 2014,p.9)  In other words,  it’s all about you and you being about you is what makes God happy.  Just like the Osteens say God wants You to be materially successful. It is a bit shocking that one of the biggest churches in the world preaches that worship to God is all about us and our material success.  It does not seem to go with any of these passages. 

Friends, our idea of holiness is so messed up.  We talk about the sacredness of life, but when it comes down to it, is the life of an Ebola victim in Liberia really as holy as the life of a US victim?  We watch violence between Israelis and Palestinians for years on end, but are we really valuing the lives of the Palestinians as much as the life of the Israelis?  Or is one holier than the others?  Have we become immune to the sight of wailing Arab mothers that they have just become part of a background reel to our lives? Is what is holy in our lives the same as what the TV channels choose to present to us?

What do we consider holy? This is a question we can direct to our lives also.  What is holy in our lives? What are the priorities? Has fun become holy?  Has entertainment become holy?  I mentioned the book about E.O. Wilson, entitled the Meaning of Human Existence.  He talks about altruism in the animal world.  But he is a practical biologist. I don’t think he would say anything is holy, beautiful maybe, but not holy.  I think you and I need to think about the holy in our lives.  I believe that deep inside we are tired of the God everyone is fighting about and making definitive statements about, we long for the God of Moses, the Pure One Whose love and Whose holiness are all wrapped up together.  Totally holy, totally love.  May we rediscover that image of God and live our lives in gratitude, with God’s help. 

 
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