A New Year Prayer in the Age of Disorientation

O God who is Love Ever with us, it has been a difficult year. We have seen such ugliness and bitterness and divisiveness. We have experienced such loss, both personally and collectively. We have experienced the loss of loved-ones and of for some the loss of love. Along with these natural, individual losses, we have endured the turmoil of a culture losing its way, seemingly embracing the path of inhumanity. We have seen the dehumanization of the refugee, of the religious faithful not our own, of the reporter, of those of another race. We have experienced an utter rejection of truth, of true words, of true effort, of true compassion in a world grasping for the truth of love. We have watched leaders climb to power embracing the means of victory at all costs, including the cost of respect, dignity, and love for humanity. We have seen these leaders climb to power with love of power their only lasting love, their only governing principal, their only real purpose.  And we have watched as these powerful men climbed to even greater power.

O holy God, at the same time, we’ve seen this year the powerful fall from power. We have seen men’s past harmful choices and sins toward subordinates and colleagues and fellow sojourners come back to take their claim and find some semblance of justice. We have seen courageous souls for too long struggling to make sense of other’s sins against them, for too long struggling through bad memories that could not be forgotten or appeased, we have seen them stand up and with vulnerable resilience and resistence declare “me too” and no more.

The juxtaposition of the movement of courage and the unmoving weight of crassness, of the rain of compassion and the drought of cruelty, it leaves us unsteady, O God. It leaves us feeling unbalanced, reeling from the resulting disorientation.

Yes, God, we are disoriented. We live in the age of disorientation. We cannot see straight. We cannot feel bottom. We cannot find true north. We cannot sense steady ground. We cannot see a lighthouse in our spiritual fogginess. We have been kicked around, knocked down, and keeled over. Our culture’s collective concussion often swings us from nauseousness to headached to dizzied to backpained and weary at every turn. This age of disorientation seems terminal some days, Lord. Our confusion and delusion sometimes seem to be drowning us. Like Peter who once believed in You and Your Way of Justice, Mercy and Humility but who then doubted his purpose and began sinking into the water he once traversed, we are drowning from our own lack of trust in the preeminence and necessity of You, O God defined by Love.

Gracious One, help us. Raise us up. Calm our storms. O God, help us not to give up. Help us not to silent our inner voice that tells us right this is not the way it is meant to be and it is not the way it will always be. Help us to know that You are with us and You will have the victory, the victory where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, where the valleys shall be exalted and the mountains and hills made low, where the crooked path shall be made straight and the rough places made plain, and where the children and the most vulnerable among us shall lead us.

O God of Perfect Grace, may we receive into our hearts the gifts You have given us, gifts by which we persevere and persist, above all Your gift of Grace. May we take care of each other and ourselves and the earth, knowing all things and beings are Your creation and our bodies are temples of Your spirit. May we in this disoriented and disorienting age get the rest we need, eat the food we should eat, and engage in activity good for our well-being and our wholeness and the earth’s. May we take time to stop and sit and smell the blossoms of beauty all around us. May we take the time to stop and sit and see the tender tenacity of each blessing given to us in this earth, on this earth. May we take the time to move and walk and experience the forest from the trees and the trees in the forest. May we marry each moment we have with friends and family and loved-ones.

Yes, God, You who are Community, may we in turn care for and honor our inner need to experience community. Help us to see that the only way to do this is to experience it. May we be inspired by your own faithfulness toward us. May your love-moved life living and breathing and moving in the world move us to live-out our love for each other and for your church. May it move us to a greater commitment to faith and to this community of faith throughout the year. Help us not to be creatures of the habitual search for perfection or the perfect community.

And finally, O Lord of Love, I pray that from this we would seek to apply the law of love, the only essential law in the universe, to our world and to our nation. May we see in friends our soil, our food, our medicine. May we see in the stranger a longing for belonging and fill it. May we see in each other kindness, compassion, care for family and community. May we see in each other we all seek good lives. May we see in each other eyes God’s love mirrored, and help us to magnify and progress that love.

May this be the year not of rage or restlessness or ridicule but of a year of transformation, rootedness, and a cultivation of Your way in the world. May the Lighthouse of Your Love melt break the fog and lead us to the home of Your realm. Amen.

A Christmas in Korea

In August 2000, Holly and I traveled to South Korea and for a year taught conversational English at a university. There are many Christians in South Korea. However, Korea remains Buddhist-Confucian in culture. This is especially so in more rural places like Iksan, the city where we taught. There, the Buddhist-Confucian culture is still mostly unadulterated. Christmas was certainly celebrated in Iksan but more like St. Valentines Day in the U.S, which is to say not so significantly spiritually.

It was for us the first and only Christmas spent in a culture not Christian (and Christmas) centric. However, the Christmas in Korea was one of the most spiritually significant for me . 

On Christmas night 2000, I took a walk down Daehagno. From one of the many shops “Silent Night” lilted. That it was Frank Sinatra singing the beautiful carol only propounded the homesickness it moved.

“All is calm, all is bright…holy infant so tender, so mild. Sleep in heavenly peace.”

The first four months of my year and half in South Korea saw my Buddhist practice grow deep roots. I immersed myself in the Buddhism of Korea. I visited Buddhist temples every chance I got. I studied Buddhism a professor of Religious Studies at the Buddhist-affiliated University where I was teaching English. I meditated as often as I could. 

Yet despite this, or maybe because of it, my connection to the teaching of Jesus was reawakening within me. When you are in unfamiliar territory and cultural differences can overwhelm, you seek what is most familiar and safe.

Partly moving this Christian reawakening was no less than the Sinatra “Silent Night” croon.

The streets of Daehagno were not exactly silent. Virtually all the shops were open and busy. And there was no snow falling. No christening of brighter than usual streetlights. No enlightenment ignited by stars guiding me or shooting across the sky above me. Only a sense that I was remembering something I once knew in my heart and not merely in my head.

“Radiant beams from Thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth”

Ever since I parted ways with Christianity in the mid-90s, Christmas increasingly seemed unimportant. It seemed more a Capitalist enterprise enjoyable to only the children who did not know the difference. Like a fake Christmas tree, I placed Christmas in the cluttered basement of my mind. Because of my disillusionment with the Evangelicalism I grew up in and grew under, I never took the tree out to adorn and appreciate. I felt cheated by the seeming narrow-mindedness that came with my Evangelical rearing. I felt lied to. And Christmas was simply not pertinent. 

What’s more, my departure from Christianity had complicated my relationship with my family. I was no longer the Evangelical minister-to-be or the great young Christian hope of my church. The isolation from my past both angered and hurt.

Thankfully, the silence of that moment and the music of a Sinatra serenade began releasing something within me.

Despite my best efforts, I could not understand most of the language spoken by the Korean citizens of Iksan passing me by. I could not find full inclusion in the culture I now lived within. Even the Buddhism I encountered sometimes seemed foreign.

Yet I understood what Sinatra was singing. And I silently cried as one sense of isolation, that of straying from the faith of my family, gave way to another. An isolation less created, more inevitable. A sense of isolation that comes with living in a place as different as different cultures can be.

Then came the longing for home in every sense of the word, for the insulation found there, away from my isolation.

For the next few days I pondered the words “Holy Infant.” Influenced by my Buddhist learning and understanding and practice, I had sensed for a while that every infant is holy. What was special about Jesus’ birth aside from the historical importance given to it?

I then realized how radical the story of Jesus’ birth really was. In many ways, it’s the original rags to riches, albeit spiritual riches, story. But unlike the Capitalist take on the story, which normally adds the proverbial storyline of pulling oneself up by bootstraps. There is no moving up to the middle class here. There is no Protestant work-ethic morality tale here. Only grace abounds here.

At the same time, the subversive narrative that a king shall come in the form of a narrativeless baby turns all political expectations on their heads. The plotted climb to power in order to overpower and conquer is the antithesis in the story of Jesus’ incarnation. The Messiah as a political hero and warrior king, which was expected in a Messiah, is what the story subverts.

The thesis is that Jesus, the Everyinfant, is holy. Jesus – born of an anonymous working class family, a family belittled even more by its community because of its perceived out-of-wedlock child – is born a king. Jesus –  born not in a home, not even in an enclosed building, but in an open barn open to the elements – is born the anointed one. There is no working up to this status. There is no campaign or fundraising. There is no climbing up the power food chain.

Sons and daughters of God are simply and humbly born. In the innately humble birth, the birthing process not being pretty or “clean”, in the mere existence of a newborn, we envisage the image of God. And Jesus teaches us in his first breaths on this earth, this very earth.

This was the good news realized as I walked the streets of a Korean city in the beginnings of Winter. The truth of divine humility and newness with us was the Christmas story reborn in me as I heard Sinatra croon of Christ.

Finding room for Jesus in the inn of my mind would be my living koan, my way to salvation, thereafter. It would be a way initially pondered in Korea, the beautiful land of morning calm, its many mountains standing as wind-filled monuments to the search.

Winter Solstice Songs: My Top Ten

In December of 1993, I received in my PO box at Cedarville College in southern Ohio an audio book on tape. It wasn’t the store bought kind. Wasn’t digital of any kind in 1993. It was a homemade, self-recorded tape of my favorite voice – then and now – reading a book that included her name. The book was The Story of Holly and the Ivy by Rumer Godden, which tells the story of a young child named Ivy and a doll that Ivy longs to have as her friend, Holly, the name that still stops me in my tracks when I hear it.

When you are in love, it is interesting how you see in every story of friendship and love your own story. When one of the characters has your love’s name, this is especially true. 

Winter and its holy days for me mean Holly. 

The music she used as the soundtrack for her homemade recording some 24 years ago was the music of George Winston and his December album which includes his rendition of the classic holiday song “The Holly and the Ivy.” I begin my top-twelve winter-themed songs with that rendition from 1982. I Begin the playing of that song with my own reading from the beloved book.

Holly saw Ivy's face pressed against the window as she had seen so many children's faces that day, but, "This one is different," said Holly. 

Ivy's hands in their woollen gloves held to the ledge where it said Blossom, High-Class Toys and Games. Holly looked at Ivy's hands. Soon they will be holding me, thought Holly. Ivy's coat even in the moonlight was as beautiful a green as Holly's dress was a beautiful red, so that they seemed to match, and, "My Christmas girl!" said Holly. 

Ivy had to go to the shed again to get warm, but I cannot tell you how many times she came back to look at Holly. 

"My Christmas doll!" 

"My Christmas girl!" 

"But the window is between," said Abracadabra, the naughty owl. 

The window was in between and the toy-shop door was locked, but even if it had been open Ivy had no money. "Hoo! Hoo!" said Abracadabra, but, remember, not only Holly but Ivy was wishing now. 

"I wish..." 

"I wish..." 

The toys woke up. "A child," they whispered, "a child." And they wished too. 

Wishes are powerful things.

I grew up in a large, working-class family. My father somehow clothed, fed, and sheltered an apartment full of eventually 6 children, all on a bus driver’s pay. In the words of Archie and Edith, “those were the days.” We didn’t eat gourmet, for sure. Mom used WIC checks and for a short time “food stamps,” as they were then called, as if you could eat stamps. We wore hand me downs and a holey wardrobe – holey pants, holey socks, and holey coat. Each room had at least one bunk-bed.

Were we poor? Probably, but not in the ways that matter most. 

Christmas was as wondrous for our family as it was for anyone else’s. But I know my parents worried greatly about affording the gifts we hoped for. My dad would get solemn at the end of the morning, after the winter dawn cheer wore off, hard on himself that he couldn’t give us more. 

We didn’t always get what we thought we wanted, but we never had to think about what we needed – somehow, we didn’t have to worry. We got by on faith and stubbornness. What more can you ask for, really? That is wisdom born of adulthood. 

My mom and dad were always big country music fans. My dad in particular loved Merle Haggard. His song “If We Make it Through December” is a song my dad understood firsthand. It recalls for me the realism and hope so many families like mine continue to know and live, the realism and hope my mom and dad embodied. 

Merle wrote the song and released it in 1973 when I was two. It remains one of Merle’s trademark songs. Here is Merle Haggard classic, “If We Make It Through December.”

In the Fall of 2006, I did a yearlong chaplain residency for my Clinical Pastoral Education at Tampa General Hospital. At the time, I was facing the reality of unfulfilled dreams. My ambition to pursue a doctorate and my plans to eventually teach theology at the college level were not going to be realized. A second round of PhD programs I had applied to all denied me admission and I was done trying.

On the minister front, I was finding my time at Tampa General very meaningful if not easy. CPE residency amounts to an extended basic training for ministers. And in many ways, it’s just as grueling as military basic training, emotionally speaking anyway. It forces you to enter the cave of your self and see what and who you are made of. It suffers no escapists, demanding recompense for all those issues you long ignored. I looked deep, saw what I was made of, took a long hard look, and all those other clichés. And I didn’t like the me behind the mask. By the time December came around, and it was all breaking forth like an ugly sunburst, I was beyond worn out. It was indeed a Long December in 2006. Thankfully, it would end with a nice jolt of honest hope. 

The Counting Crows song “A Long December” – every time I hear it, I am brought back to that long December in Florida, “the smell of hospitals in winter, and the feeling that it's all a lot of oysters, but no pearls.” The song perfectly captures the melancholy of winter in a warm climate. The uneasy ease of 70 degree sunny days in December, it seems to highlight the truth -- joy and happiness should be real but seem as fake as frosted window panes in Florida. But even long Decembers end.

 On Christmas Eve day that same December, I was working a Sunday shift at Tampa General Hospital. I got a call while writing notes in the otherwise empty chaplain’s office. It was Holly, my favorite voice, touched with a joy I heard right away. 

“Are you seated?” She asked. 

She then told me the news that changed us both in the telling. 

“I am pregnant!” 

My long December ended a week early. It ended with the joy of advent, of an expectant new life revealed to us. It would leave us humming a new song into 2007, through January, through winter, into the spring and summer, into the August of a new birth.

There is a beautiful poem of a song by the band The Decemberists ironically titled “January Hymn.” It talks about a Sunday, a keeping winter at bay, and the prayer of something hopeful coming back. Well, something hopeful had come back that late December and lifted me into heaven through January and thereafter. What can be more hopeful than news of a child soon to be born?

This theme of hope amid life’s struggles, it seems to be the winter-theme. In winter, we hope for spring, an early one at that. In life, we hope for more life, for a long life, for new life. In our suffering, we hope, yea, long for better days. Holidays and the holy days of winter follow suit. 

Amid the longest, darkest days that mark winter, babies are still being born or are waiting to. Even in the shortest, coldest days of the year, a new line of the family tree rooted in a home-place becomes possible.

Phil Collins in 1981 wrote a song that nicely captures this stark human experience of winter, of knowing things are hard but that the human reach for springtime and strength and home amid the inescapable reality of winter, that indomitable human reach for winter’s end cannot be held back. 

The song is titled, “The Roof is Leaking.” It could easily have been written by Joseph about Mary with baby Jesus. The chorus with its change to a major key and its grasping onto getting stronger epitomizes in musical form the visions of spring that sustain us through our long winters.

Winter is particularly conducive to the singing of lullabies. Mother and child join forces to get through winter together, the tenderness of mother weaning child a perfect winter image. Yes, it could be said that the Nativity Story and the main characters of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus created the association. However, the image of mother and child and the symbol of sustenance it presents predates the Nativity Story. It is as old as motherhood itself.

The only carol in our list is the carol In the Bleak Midwinter. It was written by the 19th century poet Christina Rossetti and is all about winter. It is as much a winter carol as a Christmas carol. In that sense, it is my favorite carol. Rossetti's lyrics are easily interpreted as a lullaby. Cyndi Lauper’s rendition of the carol certainly interprets the song as one of a mother singing a lullaby to a child. In listening to it, it is easy to imagine Mary singing to Jesus, or any loving mother nurturing and nourishing her child with song. Maybe this is the vision that will come to mind as we listen.

In April 2011, during Easter tide, Holly, Corey, and I traveled to visit family-friends in England. It was a memorable trip. We were courageous to take a 3 year-old Corey. But he did remarkably well all things considered. This is not to say he did not have his moments when he got really bored. And in those moments, he was at four years-old wall to wall energy. In those moments, we were at wits end. Our friends had a couple shelves of movies though not a lot of kids movies However, all we needed was one. This one film was so soft and calming, that we must have played it 10 times in the span of a week. The film is titled The Snowman. Not only is the animation stunning, so is the music.

It’s open and spacious theme song titled “Walking in the Air” really encapsulates the wintry scenes and landscapes it accompanies in the film. And alone, the song perfectly paints the sound of winter.

That it calmed Corey amid the awakening of Spring and around the time of resurrection also tells a story. In the bleak midwinter, the story of the birth of a child comes along to keep us looking forward. There, in Bath, England in the Eastertide of 2011, in the throes of Spring, a song of winter’s quiet and calm came and worked its miracle.

That’s the story “Walking in the Air” tells – winter, resurrection, birth, the miracle of song all along the way. Here is the original version from the film of the ethereally lovely song composed by Howard Blake and performed by Peter Auty.

In just a couple weeks after Christmas, maybe while you are returning the last Christmas gift you did not want, you will notice your favorite retailer preparing for the next retail-friendly holiday. Yes, Valentines Day. Valentines Day, the day dedicated to love and eros, comes at almost the 2/3rds mark of Winter. It’s as if Valentines Day and the energy of love it represents is a way to encourage and urge us onward, a kind of pep talk to help us get through the last-third of the seemingly endless, exhausting journey that is winter. Love conquers even the last stronghold of winter.

Those who know me, know a playlist of mine without a certain musician is not at all likely. That certain musician wrote and recorded a song in 1987 that gets at this idea that the energy of love is often the only thing that gets us through the long road of winter. It keeps us driving onward until we arrive home to the warmth of a summer sun. The song is actually titled Valentine’s Day and it is by Bruce Springsteen. It’s one of the most meaningful love songs I think there are and one of my all-time favorites. And what good is winter without a good love-song.

As some of you know, this is the last Christmas season here for my family and I. In the summer, we will be headed back to Southern Ohio where Holly and I first met some 27 years ago. Poor Holly, Floridian by rearing, cannot get south quick enough. Even southern Ohio is sufficient for her at this point. 

That said, the North Quabbin region and the Pioneer Valley will go with me. One of the reason I will miss this neck of the woods is because winter is really winter here. The hills of white, the stark trees holding onto snow, the blustery winds loosening the snow-trees’ hands to let it go, the quiet fields with nowhere to go – yes, the North Quabbin does winter right. 

A recent favorite song by the Massachusetts band Fountain of Wayne depicts the winters here terrifically. It is aptly titled Valley Winter Song. I play it in honor of my winter memories of this beautiful and blustery spot on the big, wide world.

Christmas 1914, so-called enemies stopped the lunacy. British and German soldiers, on opposite trenches in a war that desolated the land and destroyed all involved, they stepped away from war, put down their weapons, and celebrated life. For that moment, there were no explosions and screams, no gun shots or last gasps for breath. Just stillness tinged with Silent Night and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear serenading the winter. 

I wonder what that silence tasted like. 

During this season, despite its persistent wars, conflicts, and divisions, I still hold out hope for a long-lived truce. I hold out hope knowing that for many the hope for peace is all they have. So my winter solstice wish is the same as my holiday wish. It’s the same wish I offer up year after year in prayer, that a song reaches beyond our sides and hardened hearts and moves us toward unity.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. In honor of the hope for peace and the vision of quiet winter, I play John Lennon’s pivotal holiday song, one that gets to the true reason of the season – peace.

Chaplaincy & Parish Ministry

I am both a parish minister of five years and a hospice chaplain of seven, these days doing both. The juxtaposition of doing these two forms of ministry in tandem has been very interesting and elucidating.

Lay people to a great extent don’t know this, but chaplaincy has always been seen as the illegitimate daughter of clergy, as a lower-form of religious ministry. I’ve always thought this notion silly but I cannot say I’ve never experienced the sentiment. Here is the truth though: As religion in America is experiencing a sea change, chaplaincy, specifically hospice chaplaincy, models for us the scaled-down yet just as professional skill-set needed for religious ministry in the new age. Let me take the next few paragraphs to explain what I mean.

Chaplains are basically ministers in public settings and not the church. Thus, we encounter all the diversity that goes with public settings. While most churches partake in “the most segregated hour in America” and struggle with a lack of diversity, chaplains, because of the nature of the work, experience diversity of various kinds firsthand. This is important as America grows increasingly diverse. This is to say, chaplains have important lessons to teach when it comes to ministry in a diverse setting.

Part of diversity is theological diversity. An essential chaplain creed is “meet people where they are.” We have the honor and advantage of meeting people on a personal level and inviting them to share their journey with us regardless of creed or lack thereof. Not having to worry about preaching a sermon, chaplains have the honor and luxury -- albeit an emotionally costly one -- of sitting down with a person and in no uncertain terms quoting Frasier Crane, “I’m listening.”

Our age is overwhelmed with so much talk. Words bombard us from everywhere. We are inundated with people selling or telling us something we are told we need to know or possess. We are forced to listen to all the voices swirling in the air like dust. We are forced to listen when what we really want is to take a quiet break, be ourselves, and be heard in that safe space. The first job description of the chaplain is we invite others to be who they are and tell their story. This is a gift the world is begging for.

Chaplains do not depend on a building called the church. We do not build churches or bring people in the church building's doors. We bring church - or the synagogue, the mosque, or the temple - to people, to people often at very vulnerable times in their lives.

Related, there is this fact: at such vulnerable times the heart of the matter cannot be avoided. The heart of the matter, what spirituality and faith seeks to sit with and answer to, is that impermanence, change, and death cannot be escaped or sidetracked. What do we do with this inevitable truth? That is the question. Before we are forced to face it head on, for example, in the context of a hospice diagnosis, we try very hard to avoid it, don’t we? Religions, spiritualities, and communities of faith are not immune to this tendency to get side-tracked. Hospice chaplains urge us not to avoid the question we too easily want to rationalize, spiritualize, and sermonize away. It is an urging needing a heeding. I pray the church finds its inner Frasier Crane and learns to use more the words, “we’re listening.”

I end by saying that the work of the parish minister is tremendously difficult. Part writer, part motivational speaker, part CEO, part marketer, part therapist, part shaman, part ceremonialist, the work of the parish minister is really complex, unfairly and unrealizably so. And I am in awe of my parish minister colleagues who do the job much better than I could ever do. I don’t how to make it simpler, but clearly it needs to be simpler. Our time and place demands it change or the church will continue to die and itself need hospice chaplaincy.

Turning Toward Other-Power

POEM: Rumi Quotes (dedicated to Sufis killed in Egypt this week)

“Be empty of worrying.
Think of who created thought!
Why do you stay in prison
When the door is so wide open?”

“You are so weak. Give up to grace.
The ocean takes care of each wave till it gets to shore.
You need more help than you know.” 

“Be melting snow.
Wash yourself of yourself.” 

“Brother, Sister, stand the pain.
Escape the poison of your impulses.
The sky will bow to your beauty, if you do.
Learn to light the candle. Rise with the sun.
Turn away from the cave of your sleeping.
That way a thorn expands to a rose.” 

READING: Philippians 4: 4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.


The hymn we just sang talks about turning. To turn, turn, will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come round right. It is believed the turning talked about has a couple meanings in the hymn. It is a turning in a specific dance which the Shakers did, a dance centered on turning. I should mention here the Sufis who were the target of Fridays terrorist attack in Egypt. Sufism is the mystical tradition of Islam, and Muslim fundamentalists despise the tradition. Sufis too have a dance tradition focused on turning. The twirling dervishes, they are known as. So I think of all those lost as I give this. In fact, come to think of it, this is very much a sermon in line with that tradition. If only the terrorists could follow the Sufis and their focus on inner peace and connection to God.

Anyway, turning can be about dance, but turning can also point to the biblical concept of turning to God, a teaching found throughout the scriptures.

The turning to God found in the scriptures is really a returning. It is us going home.

We are talking about a return home, a home coming, God being our home. Sometimes, we travel so far away for so long, we forget where we come from, we forget what is home. It is akin to spiritual amnesia. We need prompting to turn and look at what is home so we can return.

Why is this important? Because turning homeward is where we find peace. Returning to the home-place, to the Bethel of God, is where we find ourselves and ourselves calm, comforted, and cared for. And isn't that what we all want in life - to feel calmness in our souls, to feel comforted amid the suffering of life, and to know we are cared for in the profoundest of ways?

What are we returning to? We are returning to who we were meant to be, who we are created to be . We were created as an essential part of God's good creation. We were created as carriers of God's likeness in our very being. We were created to be at peace and at one with God and the world. We were created to be the hands, feet, and heart of God in the world, tasked with the work of compassion and care-giving.

How far have we strayed as a people. How distant is the Garden of Eden from us. How great have we strayed from the original vision of God.

So how do we return? Here’s a hymn that gives an answer to consider.

The hymn is interesting. It conflates, joins together two movements. One movement is turning our eyes upon Jesus. The other is casting our care upon God. They are combined. The hymns presents turning our eyes upon Jesus and casting our cares upon him as two sides of the same coin.

This hymn presents what we might call the classical Christian vision of self-help. Want to be a better self? Want to know inner-peace, experience hope and courage in the fact of life’s trials? Well, the answer we find in the hymn. It gives us the classical Christian answer: Don’t go inward, cast outward, upward. Turn your eyes, your care, your strife upon Jesus, give all that holds you back to God.

Lest we think this is just a Western Christian notion, I will inform you it is not. There is a form of Buddhism built upon the idea of casting our cares outward to a Power that can better handle it. Pure Land Buddhism it is called and it may be called the most popular form of Buddhism in the world. Pure Land Buddhism’s main idea is first, that human life is so frail and fallible, the age we live in is so lost and hopeless, namely because self-power is doomed to failure. And because self-power is doomed to failure, we must call upon another power, on Other Power, on the Other Power of Buddha and the Buddha's Grace. Pure Land Buddhism parallels the classical Christian view of salvation, which we must make clear predates Pure Land Buddhism. That people instinctively feel the need for Grace everyone tells us something, I think.

I know I preach a lot about humility. Maybe too much for some. In a way, I understand. For the average, already-humbled person, all the talk about humility amounts to preaching to the choir, preaching humility to people drowning in humility, even humiliation.

But I would say this is a misunderstanding of humility. Humility as a practice is not meant to beat ourselves up when we are down, diminish ourselves as persons or saying we are unimportant. Humility is dynamic and looks differently depending where you are in life. For the powerful and the prideful, humility means to bring the mountains low. Mary’s words as she contemplates the arrival of her son Jesus comes to mind:

"Throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath brought down – humbled – the mighty from their seat."

For the meek and vulnerable, for the lost and alone, for those humbled by the circumstances around them, for those grieving and heartbroken, humility is something different. Humility in the already-humbled amounts to this: from our low estate, looking up. From our helpless state, going to God. From our sorrow with its sated tears, letting go of our sadness and grief and letting God have it.

So the already-humble give us a truer picture of humility. The powerful and prideful do not see the reality that we will all be brought low, we will all get sick and face the inevitability of mortality, and must depend on Other Power in some form. The powerful and the prideful are more protected from the reality of suffering and impermanence. The process of being humbled, of being brought down from our high horses so we can see God with all the people, is extra hard for the rich and famous and powerful. The weak and vulnerable know the reality of suffering and impermanence because it is all around them. And they show us the truth and what to do in the fact of the truth.

We are not in control – that is the truth.

And what to do? Give it to God.

Jesus himself pointed to this in a discussion with a rich man that wanted to follow him. Jesus famously quipped, it is harder for a camel to go through the eyes of a pin needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because a rich man with the instant power and pride that riches bring, has a harder time letting go and letting God. They have made a habit of relying on themselves, their power, their abilities, their resources to get by and thrive. To give that away and admit they are not in control is simply harder because they've never had to do it. The sad thing is they eventually must. Suffering, impermanence, mortality finds everyone. But it is hard, even harder to face. Generally speaking, those people who've had it relatively easy in life, take the inescapable reality of death just a little harder.

Who has it easiest when to comes to understanding and entering the kingdom of heaven according to Jesus? Children. Children were in fact the model of how to do it. Jesus said "whosoever does not receive the kingdom of heaven like a child shall not enter it." Children naturally let go and let God. They naturally say I need help, I cannot do it on my own, I give it to you God to take and handle. Children are the model of trusting in Other Power because self-power is simply insufficient.

Maybe that is why when my mother sang me this beautiful hymn, I understood it so and was comforted and felt safe.

Turning our eyes upon Jesus, turning our eyes upon Other Power as Pure Land Buddhism would say, is the perfect picture of the practice of humility. Letting Go and Letting God, that cliché pretty much describes what I am talking about when I preach humility. Humility is casting our care upon God because, well, we need all the help we can get.

I'd like to end by singing the second verse to our hymn 'Tis a gift to be simple." It is a verse I actually wrote. Let us sing it as a collective prayer that lifts up the true meaning of humility and urges us to internalize it.

But before we do, here's the question - what is the simple gift? It is that we can give our troubles to God... and it's exactly what God wants for Christmas.

Transformative Selflessness

Maybe you saw it on the news, but a couple months ago legendary American musician Tom Petty died. Petty was one of my favorites and has been for a while. Knowing this, last week, Holly came home from the grocery store with a “Special Tribute Edition” of Rolling Stone remembering Tom Petty. I have been reading through it since then. One of the last essays about Petty in the edition discusses his last tour, the one he finished just before he had a heart event that took his life. It focuses on the friendship and brotherhood of Petty and his bandmates. It begins with these words:

“Bassist Ron Blair has battled stage fright for years since rejoining the Heartbreakers in 2002, after a 20-year sanity break. He wanders into Petty and cops to something you're not likely to admit to your bandleader unless you've known him for 40 years. ‘I'm kinda nervous, you know,’ says Blair in a quiet voice.

Petty rarely describes himself as the leader of his band, but as ‘the older brother they sometimes have to listen to.’ Tonight, he gives Blair some fatherly assurance and a toothy Southern smile: ‘Let me be nervous for you.’

A poignant moment, especially for Tom Petty fans, especially in the wake of his passing.

READING: 1 Timothy 2:1-6
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all;
For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior;
Who will have all to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and humanity, the person Christ Jesus;

Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.


Let me be nervous for you, Tom Petty said to his nerve-wracked bassist.

The story of Tom Petty saying this and meaning it points to a biblical concept central to the Christian faith. I am going to call it transformative selflessness. What I mean by transformative selflessness is this: it is the act of someone sacrificing themselves for another’s benefit which in turn transforms them both. Traditional Christianity knows it as Redemptive Suffering or Sacrificial atonement.

Tom Petty saying "let me be nervous for you," it is a low-level example of transformative selflessness. But it gets at the idea nicely. Let me take on your nervousness so that you don’t have to experience it, at least not as much.

It recalls Jesus’ eternal words in Matthew 11, vs. 28 & 29

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you – let me guide you – and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

I also recall one of the first Bible verses I was taught and memorized. Yes, as a kid we were taught to memorize Bible verses. It has served me well. I don’t always remember them word for word, but I remember the heart of the verses. This is certainly true for I Peter 5:7: “Cast all your cares upon him for God cares for you.” Cast all your nervousness, your anxiety, your stage-fright, your fear in general upon God, and God will love you into being. God is Love. In God, there is no fear for Love casts away all fear. Because of this we can be who we’re supposed to be. Because of this we can enter every stage of life and have no stage-fright.  

We see the concept of transformative selflessness in a number of verses in the New Testament. Jesus in John 15 says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus is referring to disciples whom he called friends. In a similar teaching, Jesus in Mark 10 says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." The many are his disciples and followers.  A ransom was a payment given to free a slave. Jesus says he has become a servant and will exchange his freedom for his friends. He becomes a slave so his friends can be free. This indeed is a selflessness that transforms, a compassion that changes the hearts of those who receive such compassion.

Paul or maybe a student of Paul’s in I Timothy 2:6 refers to Christ Jesus as the man who gave himself as a ransom for all. Christ’s selfless compassion is expanded to embrace not just his disciples and followers but all, everyone, humanity in general. Paul applies to all Christ’s sacrificial death that protected and saved the lives of his disciples. What Paul is saying is such selfless compassion saves us and will save us all.

This week, I came across another beautiful example of the biblical concept of transformative selflessness, the act of someone sacrificing themselves for another’s benefit which in turn transforms them both.

Ruby Sales is a venerated civils rights activist who has been involved in the movement since the 1960’s. She continues the work of civil rights to this day, civil rights sadly still having to be struggled for. She is also a public theologian who last year did an interview on the radio show On Being that you all should check out. One of my heroes. She has a really incredible story to tell.

This week I was reading about her life. A central event, maybe the central event, of her life happened in 1965 when she was just 17 years-old. She was active in what she calls the Southern Freedom Movement in Alabama, protesting segregated stores and restaurants that were by 1965 breaking the law – segregation was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A group of 29 of these freedom fighters, including Sales, led a protest in Fort Deposit, Alabama. They faced violent threats and abuse by racists. They faced the anger-contorted faces of a mob of white men with clubs, shovels, and garbage cans and were afraid for their lives. These young people were willing to pay the ultimate price for justice. Indeed, after some tense moments, they were arrested and thrown in jail in nearby Hayneville, in the courthouse jail.

Now, before we continue with the story we should note that Ruby and the other protesting in and of itself are examples of transformative selflessness. They offered their bodies to resist an evil system. They were thrown in wretched jails, beaten up, even killed in that resistance. They resisted nonviolently in attempts to make America truly great and to make it all it said it was. Yes, in these Freedom Movement non-violent warriors, we have prime examples of transformative selflessness.

Back to our story. Eventually, the protesters were released from the Hayneville jail and were awaiting transport out of town. As they waited, Ruby Sales and a few of her fellow protesters – a Catholic priest, an Episcopal seminarian, and two young students – went to buy sodas for the group in one of the few stores that followed the law and served non-whites. Even that was objectionable to a local named Tom Coleman.

Coleman was a construction worker and a special county deputy. Shotgun in hand and pistol in his holster, he blocked entry into the convenient store. He threatened violence to those who attempted entry. His threats and hate gave way to murder. He began to shoot, aiming his gun at 17 year-old Ruby Sales. A fellow protester by the name of Jonathan Daniels pushed Sales out of the way and took the bullet meant for Ruby.

Jonathan Daniels was a white Episcopal seminarian and a graduate of Virginia Military Institute born and raised in Keene, NH. In 1963, moved by the words and deeds of Martin Luther King and his faith, and perturbed by the withholding of justice and equality to American citizens of color, Daniels joined the Civil Rights Movement. Little did he know the costs he’d pay. Little did he know the inspiration he’d give to countless others in the struggle to follow the way of God and stand up for the downtrodden.

Upon learning of Daniels' murder, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that "one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels".

Christian deeds – transformative selflessness as personified by Jesus Christ. As exemplified by Dr. King just 3 years later after Daniel’s death as well.

Daniel’s sacrificial act and the violence that precipitated it, as Sales stated, shattered and devastated her and changed her. For more than 7 months Sales could not speak. In general, she shutdown, word she used to describe the aftermath of that tragic day. In the wake of the horror, which included the acquittal of Coleman by an all-white jury, she was silent. In the wake of Daniel’s act of transformative selflessness, and her own, she would spend her adulthood finding her voice, becoming "full-voiced," as she puts it. Thankfully, she found her voice and to this day she is speaking truth to power.

We must note, Transformative Selflessness is not just a Christian thing. It crosses cultures and religions and peoples. Someone selflessly suffering for the sake of and even dying to save another, and the honoring of this, is found in every society. The Vietnamese Buddhist monks, protesting violence on both sides of the war destroying them, giving themselves up to the fire, representing anger and hatred all around them – this was a Buddhist-based example of transformative selflessness.

That said, we must recognize something vital about transformative selfless. We must recognize it because it is true. Transformative selflessness is something that is innately subversive and resistant in our culture. In our culture, yes, we give lip service to Jesus’ sacrifice and to acts of selflessness on a theoretical level, but as a culture we glorify and seek after the opposite – individualism, ambition, and personal comfort often couched in terms of inner peace.

So when we come across examples of transformative selflessness like Christ’s, Jonathan Daniel’s, Dr. King’s or those Buddhist monks, it humbles us, and in so doing provokes us. And then, while we are humbled and provoked, this transformative selflessness asks us to accept the compassion behind it all into our hearts and let it transform us.

I would like to close with the story of Paul on the Road to Damascus, the story of a transformation. Here was Paul, then known as Saul. A powerful religious leader and persecutor of early Christians deemed the lowest of society. He was witness to and complicit to the murder of a Christian named Stephen. Paul held the coats of those who stoned Stephen for believing Christ the Messiah.

It was this Paul whom the transformative selflessness of God sought out. With a blinding light that dropped him to his knees, Christ reached the calloused and fanatic Saul with a jolt. And then Christian after Christian accepted him, forgiving him, welcoming him, embracing him. These everyday Christians, their transformative selflessness mirroring Christ’s, welcomed even one who persecuted them. Paul would never be the same. How could he be? The world would never be the same. An Empire would fall and a new way of being revealed.

Such Transformative selflessness changes us. Once we stop long enough to really see, it can’t help but to change us. It moves us to see our own vulnerability and eventually other’s. A community of the vulnerable known as the church is the result.  We here are the result.

Feed Those That Hunger (Times 6)

Do you know what the most frequent story in the Gospels is? Well, the answer is it is a story that has 6 examples of being told. Can you guess what that story is? Here’s a hint: all six stories tell a tale of the distribution of resources. Yes, the resource we are talking about is food.

That’s right. Its the story of Jesus Feeding Multitudes. It is told 6 times, the most frequent story told in the gospels. Here is story from Matthew 14:

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

That is one telling. It’s also told in Mark, Luke and John. Outside of the Resurrection, it is the only, the only miracle told in all four gospels. 

There are two other times the same story is told but with a bit of a variation. These two tellings come in Matthew and Luke. In these renditions, Jesus feeds 4,000. Now, we are not sure that Jesus fed one crowd of 5,000 and then later fed a crowd of 4,000. They might be the same event. We don’t know. But in all, the same basic story is told six times! More than even the Resurrection.

The mere fact that all four gospels include the story of the feeding of 5,000 and that Matthew and Luke include an additional story with the same plot and moral points to the importance placed on that story and that moral.

What is that moral?

Feed those that hunger, feed those that hunger, feed those that hunger, feed those that hunger, feed those that hunger, feed those that hunger. That is the moral of the story.

It’s as if the mere repeating of the same basic story highlights what is most crucial in following Jesus. Feed those that hunger, and, as it was done each time Jesus fed the crowds, begin with the children.

There is something else of interest here. We get to it by looking at what exactly the people eat. Remember when the Community Meal program used to be called “Fishes and Loaves”? Well, it got its name from this story. Jesus had served and the people ate a meal of fish sandwiches.

Now, grilled fish and whole grain bread is a very healthy meal. It is Mediterranean kind of meal that people throughout the world for ages and ages have lived on and lived long on.

If Jesus passed out the Ancient Palestinian equivalent of potato chips and twinkies, we might see the story a little differently.

In America, hunger remains a problem. At this very moment, a child is waking up in America hungry and will end her day hungry. In the richest country in the history of the world, that is a sin. That we have enough food and funds to feed the world a couple times over but hunger still kills human beings – that is just as much a sin.

There is also the issue of undernourishment and malnourishment. Fellow human beings in poverty-stricken urban areas and rural areas alike might be eating, but are they eating well? Here is another sin – that the worst-kinds of food, the least healthy, the most processed kinds of foods, the worst examples of fast foods, it is all dirt cheap while the healthiest kinds of food are often gold-dust expensive.  We are incentivizing undernourishment, and corporations making millions from it, instead of full-nourishment and local farms and farmers markets.

Thankfully, there are places like Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op. Did you know that Quabbin Harvest has “the highest enrollment rate for the Healthy Incentives Program, a program which aims to give low-income residents greater access to healthy and locally-grown fruits and vegetables"? That is tremendous. Yes, it is still expensive to shop at food co-ops, too expensive for many, but the trend is in the right direction.

There is another wonderful trend happening, and our neighbors The Farm School are a perfect example of it. Seeds of Solidarity is another perfect example. Let me introduce that trend with a snippet from a song by the group Arrested Development, one I loved back in college.

The Grow Your Own Food movement basically aims to help people exit as much as possible the system where corporations profit from the absolute human necessity of healthy food. Having your own garden is a simple example of this. Our raised bed garden that The Grange has put in and maintains is our small way of supporting this. Or having your own small farm, which the Farm School and Seeds of Solidarity help to teach people all the time to do, is a more significant example. Teach a man or woman to garden or farm, he or she will eat forever.

All of this falls under the terrain of Food Justice, the work of making good food accessible to all and affordably so. No one should go hungry or undernourished. A goal straight from our story. Someone in intercity Springfield should have as much access to affordable, healthy, and fresh produce and foods as someone in Amherst, Mass. Public land, especially in the intercity, should be allotted for people who don’t have land and can’t afford to buy land to grow food.

The real take away in the story is the miracle of compassionately passing-on, the giving of that which sustains us. The miracle is making a little go a long way by simply being willing to share. The compassion and wisdom of sharing costs so we can make good food affordable, the compassionate sharing of the wisdom and knowledge of growing your own food, these are themselves little miracles we get to share. And here’s the thing - we are all called to such miracles. Let’s make them happen!