The Most Inspiring

In my high school yearbook, which I have purposefully lost, I am listed in a rundown of categorization as “the most bashful.” I have wondered about that rather unique claim to high school infamy. Most bashful. Not most likely to succeed. Not best dressed. Not most likely to be president. But most bashful. Introversion had a lot to do with it. Low self-image surely had something to do with it. Living in a rural town in the middle of nowhere also had something to do with it. Anyway, I am okay with being bashful. There’s worst things to be.

I am not sure if there is a “Most Inspiring” in high school yearbooks these days. Maybe there is. There wasn’t in mine. And if there were, I would not have been deemed Most Inspiring either, that’s for sure. I cannot think of a senior classmate who would have been deemed that. Even the cheerleaders were Gen-X cynical.

I begin with this to say I’ve been pondering the importance of being inspiring as a pastor. In the latter part of my 5 years here, I’ve been pondering this.  This is what is clear to me. One person can never, ever be the most inspiring reality. It is unfair to expect this from a person. Why? Because at its heart, inspiration comes from somewhere else. We may be conduits of inspiration. We may even be good at being conduits of inspiration. But inspiration by definition comes from a source outside of ourselves. 

So what is the most inspiring thing? The most inspiring reality is the reality at the source of all inspiration.  

The word inspiration, its etymology, helps us understand what I am saying. Inspiration literally means the state of being breathed into. Now folks often put a self-help, motivational speaker slant on this. In this idea, inspiration comes from hearing someone inspire us or from our finding it in ourselves or a combination of these two.

But inspiration in the literal sense points to breath and a source of breath. Something breathed life into us. The first book of the Bible offers an idea about who the source of our breath is.

Genesis 2:7 says this: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

This is the original inspiration, the ultimate inspiration, the inspiration that never dissipates. God breathed life into us. God literally inspired us. And in every breath in the world, not just our own which of course will end, but in every breath breathed in the world, we have evidence of God inspiring us.

So if you are having a bad day, if the world has got you down, if you come to CCNOT Sunday morning and the preacher puts you to sleep, if the next minister turns out to be as boring as I am in the end, you can find hope in this – our very breath, humanity’s breath, the earth’s breaths, is a testimony to God’s inspiration. Truly taking that in, making a practice of it, cannot help but inspire us.

Even if you doubt the existence of an external God, the reality of breaths in the world being the source of inspiration still applies. Take away all the trees in the world and what would happen? Take away all the water from the world, what would happen? Take away all the oxygen? Take any of those away, and our breath would eventually stop. Our breath relies on the breath of trees, on water, and on oxygen. The environment around us literally gives us breath.

So if you are having a bad day, if the world has got you down, you can find inspiration by doing something very simple – deeply look at the trees, at water, at our own breath, and ponder their gifts to us. The gratitude found in this simple practice will naturally lead to feeling inspired.

We are talking about inspiration in the truest sense, as connected to the breath which is born of God who Zerself is Breath (“God is Spirit or Breath”). We are talking about the breath sustained by the Community of the Earth. Yes, it helps to be reminded of these things. But there is nothing more helpful than developing your own practice of going back to your breath and appreciating what it represents. God’s ultimate gift is found in our own breath. The earth’s ultimate gift is also found in our own breath. And these are gifts that keep giving. If not to us on this earth, then to the newborns in the world taking in their first independent breath and to us in the realm of God’s very breath, heaven. What can be more inspiring than a gift that keeps giving?

What Autism Teaches Religious Communities

A religious community – what is it? A religious community is a group of people holding to religious faith that join together as a community to make the world better and to enjoy the benefits of faith and community. So there is a religious/spiritual component to religious community. There is a social component, of course. And there is an emotional component.

As you might perceive, for kids on the Spectrum, engaging these three components are not so simple. First of all, religion and spirituality. As has been noted by psychologists and people who study these things, people on the Spectrum are far more likely to be atheists. According to a survey done not too long ago, “respondents with high-functioning autism were more likely than control subjects to be atheists and less likely to belong to an organized religion… And atheists were higher on the autistic spectrum than Christians and Jews.”

Thinking about what Autism is, it is not so difficult to see why this might be so. For people on the Spectrum, it is hard to understand figurative language and anthropomorphic language, which is language that takes abstract truth and wraps it in human thinking, forms, and feelings. People on the Spectrum can get abstract concepts. Many are physics and engineers. But wrapping it in human emotions and human choices and nuance is difficult for them, usually. Often, a personal God is more difficult for ASD people than an impersonal force.

Next, is the social component. Social groups and social engagement is difficult for ASD kids. The difficulty becomes even more acute when we are talking about a large group of people. Add in religion and spirituality, which ASD kids might feel disconnection from, and the issues become more pronounced. There can be social isolation and there can be intellectual isolation involved in church.

So Corey is a great example. He has difficulty entering a social group, that is clear. School 5 days a week wears him out and there are issues almost weekly we hear about from his teachers and professionals. Corey also does not connect to ideas of God and religion. He simply doesn’t, at least not yet. He likes a good story and we focus on that. In fact, we are reading through the Old Testament together. But religious faith is hard for him. And church is all about social engagement wrapped in religious faith. So it is doubly difficult.

Lastly, there is the emotional component. Many of us have a built-in incentive to come to church. We enjoy getting with friends and people we like. We feel satisfaction in knowing we are coming together to do good in the community, for example. We enjoy feeling emotionally connected to others and to God. In other words, there is an emotional payoff to church. For many on the Spectrum, this built-in emotional incentive doesn’t exist. Emotional payoffs are simply harder to come by for ASD kids. Most people on the Spectrum have in the whole of their life just three close relationships at most. That is all that is needed. And more than that would be difficult to manage. Knowing this, you can see why church, especially large churches, would be hard. There is no emotional payoff and sometimes the opposite. There can be a real emotional drain involved.

So what does this all tell us as a religious community? What can we learn?
Well, here are some ideas as we come to a close.

Autism teaches us that a spirit of acceptance, flexibility and inclusion is fundamental. There is nothing worse than being expected to give complete conformity when complete conformity is not neurologically possible. As I said last week, diversity, including neurodiversity, diversity in how people approach the world, is a given. We should experience others and interact with others accordingly. With openness, curiosity, and nonjudgment.  

Secondly, on a very practical level, Autism teaches us the importance of routine. People on the Spectrum usually want routine. Thus, sticking with a liturgy and avoiding changing it is helpful. A regular, structured, routine Liturgy and Order of Service can be of comfort. There would be nothing worse for someone with ASD than changing the format every month with a lot of improvisation in each service.

Thirdly, again on a practical level, Autism teaches us the importance of speaking to different levels of approaching the world. People on the Spectrum think structurally and systematically and have difficulty with expressing emotion or reading emotion. Feeling inspired can come harder for them. Relating to abstract poetry or emotional stories and even nuanced jokes can be harder for them. They relate more to reasoned out thoughts and well-structured and orderly ideas. So balancing emotionality with systematic ideas in the sermon, for example, becomes crucial. Think of an engineer attending Sunday service, which many on 
the Spectrum are. How do we reach them too?

Fourth, Autism teaches us to avoid forced intimacy, which I am thankful this church does avoid. Passing the Peace type segments where people are encouraged to get up, say hello to people, and interact? That would be a no for someone on the Spectrum. Asking congregants to look at their neighbor and say I love you in the Lord as I’ve experienced in one church? That would be a no. Having folks hold hands at the end of the service and singing a closing hymn like a church I was once a part of? Again, a no. This – forced intimacy – is torture for many ASD people. They will either check out or act out.

Fifth, Autism teaches us to be mindful of sensory overload. A lot of movement, standing up, sitting down, loud music, blinking screens, over the top emotionality, this can be very counterproductive for ASD folks. Again, they will either check out or act out.

Lastly, Autism teaches us the importance of alternative formats to just Worship.  Great examples of this involve very small groups focused on areas of interest is great for ASD folks as well. For example, a Star Wars club, that would be a very ASD friendly club. Incorporating the spiritual themes of Star Wars in a natural and unforced way (pardon the pun), that is a best practice that might reap benefits.

So, I close with this. We live in a society where conformity is expected, don’t we? We live in a society where doing things the way they’ve always been done is the norm, especially when it comes to the church world. "Mind your manners," how many times have we heard and said that? But Autism reminds us that conformity, typicality, good manners are not always possible. 

And thinking about this, it is good to remember, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Maybe God is teaching us through people like Corey that the world is diverse, each human brain is different and approaches the world differently, and yet amid this diversity and difference, each human being carries God’s image and is hence beautiful. Like all of us, people on the Spectrum carry the image of God and reveal it in the world. In other words, there is a little bit of the Spectrum in God and its expressed in kids like Corey. Ponder that one for a bit.

So last week we visited Friendly’s Restaurant in Gardner. Per usual, Corey said hi to everyone on the way to being seated as well as once seated, including to the waitress, more than once. It is an example of his repetitive behaviors that are core to ASD. He was his usual extroverted, unique, 20 questions self. And in the process, in the process of breaking up the monotony plodding around that restaurant that day, Corey broke through. 

In talking with the waitress, Corey shared that he is on the Spectrum. In reply, she said, "well, you are beautiful." Corey quipped, "but I am a boy." To which she answered, "boys can be beautiful too." 

At the end of our time in a Friendly world, Corey told the waitress you’d make a great mom. She was a mom – of five kids and two grandchildren. 

As we left, the waitress stopped us and looked at Corey and said, “you made my day, Corey.” I believe she meant it. To quote a songwriter, "sometimes life can be so grand!” This is what Corey regularly teaches me.

The Evil of Separating Parent & Child

Sometimes, something is so heinous and vicious, that to be silent means to be complicit. I don’t commonly discuss current events or go into details about national news. It seems to me preaching to broader themes is best. Usually, my views of the ways of the world can be seen and understood implicitly. But sometimes, a pastor must be explicit. This morning is one such an occasion.

I must say to write this reflection hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to work through tears, real tears, the 
tears of a parent in horror at another parent’s pain of saying goodbye to a child.

In a New York Times piece from this last past week, a piece titled “It’s Horrendous’: The Heartache of a Migrant Boy Taken From His Father, journalist Miriam Jordan details a five-year old Honduran boy named Jose arriving in Michigan to caretakers after being separated from his father at the border so that his father could be prosecuted for crossing the border without documentation. Organizations that organize such caretaking in Michigan and Minnesota are planning for 100 cases of children like Jose. There are hundreds of cases of children being separated from their parents. Jose’s caretaker is 53 year-old Janice and her husband Chris. Janice in talking to Jordan for her report stated, “I am watching history unfold right before my eyes. It is horrendous.”

Janice should know. She has watched Jose peer at a sketch of his father and his own stick person drawing of his family and cry. Jordan writes:

The first few nights, he cried himself to sleep. Then it turned into “just moaning and moaning,” said Janice, his foster mother. He recently slept through the night for the first time, though he still insists on tucking the family pictures under his pillow.

Jordan reports children as young as 18 months old are being separated from their parents for the purpose of prosecuting the toddler’s parents.

The horrendous zero-tolerance policy comes from a directive of the Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president has tried to claim it was a policy from the opposing party, another lie from a president that seems void of a moral compass. This is on the Trump Administration and on the president’s maniacal sense of vengeance against immigrants. His hatred is so acute that he sees possible gang members in every minor making the dangerous trek from Honduras and El Salvador and crossing the border alone. He recently said this about those he deemed “unaccompanied alien minors,” and I quote, “They look so innocent. They’re not innocent.” Minors are not innocent.

Now, thinking about the themes of the Bible, I recall the story of Joseph. Remember his story? Joseph was the youngest son of Jacob, born years after his older brothers when Jacob and Rachel were rather old. Because dad was so old when Joseph came along, the story tells us, the young Joseph was the apple of his father’s eye. He adored young Jacob. As the story goes, his brothers throw him into a well and eventually sell him as a slave to some merchants. They are so hateful that they are sure to take Joseph’s coat, kill a goat and dip the coat in the goat’s blood, and show it their father. Jacob, thinking the worst and too old to make sure, is absolutely devastated. In one of the most heartbreaking passages in scripture, we read about Joseph’s desperate grief.

“It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has eaten him! Joseph must have been torn to pieces!” Then, to show his grief, Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth around his waist, and mourned for his son a long time. All his other sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. He said, “No, I will mourn for my son until I die.” This is how Joseph’s father cried over him.

Now, Jacob thinks Joseph’s separation is permanent. Any kind of separation of uncertain length of time for a parent is excruciating. Imagine not being sure you will see your child again? That is Jacob. That is Jose’s father. An inconsolable grief.  Grieving to death.

Marco Antonio Munoz did just that. His grief took his life. When he found out they were going to take his 3 year-old boy, he lost it. The border police had to fight him to extract his son from his arms. A couple days later, in a padded cell, he took his short, twisted it like a rope, and hung himself. This evil policy killed him.

The brothers who sold Joseph into slavery do not correct the wrong and end the separation. Why? Because they want to maintain their status and be seen as blameless and upright by their father. What a lie, though! Such cruelty to separate a son from their father. And to continue with such cruelty by seeing that father, your father, grieve so devastatingly, and do nothing to fix it! Pride and power and holding on to them – these things are more important than a righting a heinous wrong, an evil!

Now, the administration is rationalizing the zero-tolerance policy of separating children and parents by saying it is a deterrent to refugees. If parents think that their children will be taken from them at the border, maybe they’ll stay in their place, places overrun by poverty, corruption, violence, and terror, places that sees its children constantly in danger of harm. So these immigrant seek refuge and come to our border. We should remember, it is no crime to come to the border and plead for refuge. How can it not be a crime to take the children from those seeking refuge and trying to get over the border.

Remember the story of baby Moses? Moses mother was desperate to protect her boy from the infanticide project the Pharaoh was dastardly waging. Mom got so desperate that she placed Moses in a basket and sent him down the Nile trusting someone would find him. Indeed, the Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and raises him in the Pharaoh’s court.

Could it be that when you compare the desperation of losing a child to violence forever versus losing a child to a safer existence in a home like Janice’s in Michigan, that heartbreaking choice means choosing the lesser of two evils?   What can deter a parent’s desperation? Moses’ mother gives us the answer. Nothing! How about we focus on the desperation of these parents and give them refuge?

I end with the story of maybe the most famous refugees to have ever lived. You probably know their names – Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Jesus is born not in his hometown, Nazareth, but in Bethlehem. After the birth, they have to sojourn back to Nazareth. Part of the journey home is fleeing to Egypt as refugees to escape Herod’s evil plans, the Pharaoh like plan of infanticide.

If Egypt were like Trump’s America, how different our story would have turned out? Baby Jesus torn from Mary’s arms, Mary and Joseph tried for the crime of crossing the border to escape the Herod’s holocaust, and Jesus ending up somewhere in Egypt and possibly lost to history.

Let us remember, as we close, Christ’s face resides in the faces of Jose and his father. Christ resides in the most vulnerable fleeing harm and dreaming of the hope and home of a safer place. May we somehow find our sanity and our compassion again and stop this sickening madness of tearing a child from his mother’s arms at the border!

Entering Jerusalem

Image result for jesus entering jerusalem icon

Yeshua's disciples were never as certain of their faith in their teacher as in this moment, this majestic moment. He processing into Jerusalem on a colt. A vibrant, chilly Spring day, the full moon still distant in the sky in midmorning. He had become in their three years together more than just their teacher, their rabbi. He had become a friend, a brother, a kindred spirit to each and every one of them. Each of them felt a special bond with him and with each other. 

Collectively, they were a traveling band of vagabonds, sharing an honest togetherness born of intimate and lengthy conversations, grueling days on the road going from town to town, the struggle against the hypocrisy and prejudice that isolated them. They were misfits, questioners, working people with big dreams who all felt belonging in this community of misfits, questioners, and dreamers. As Spring was arriving and the festiveness of Passover was beginning, they all wondered how this sense of finding the meaning they were looking for could be shared with their people.

Their teacher rode his colt into Jerusalem. All preceding experiences had built up to this moment.  The love they felt profoundly for their rabbi gave way to veneration in these moments, moments the hooves of the colt marked the time of. It was a veneration not planned or plotted. It was an improvised veneration that spilled over from something deep inside them. These were hearts filled to flowing with memories, pride, and faith. And so they placed their coats on the path Jesus took, coats and leaves and whatever that softened the journey.

Yeshua to the city awaiting his arrival was certainly a stranger, a stranger, a nobody from the nowhere of Nazareth. His disciples knew this. Nonetheless, they surmised that the city hadn't heard him teach yet, they hadn't sat and internalized his wisdom or felt the warmth of his compassion. He would make hearing hearts out of them. He would go from being a nobody to the maestro he was in no time. Yes, the disciples' faith had climbed its highest peak.

As for Yeshua, as he rode into Jerusalem, he almost immediately went to a deep place inside himself, a reservoir that reflected with special power the truth of all that was. It was not a trance. He was fully conscious in the grips of prayer.

Something inside him was being transformed at that moment. Something inside him experienced that transformation.  A preternatural calm. The profoundest of insights. An experience of God akin to his mother's embrace amid his earliest feelings of fear.  

His mind then went to the relationships that grounded his life and inspired him. With his mother who had taught him everything he in a lasting way knew. With his father who loved him deeply but was petrified to express it. With his siblings who marked and shared his childhood and pushed him to be better. With his disciples whom he loved in a way even he could not describe. He embraced the envisioned face of each person that arrived in his mindful thoughts, his family then his disciples and said words only they could receive. To the visage of Peter, with a firm and insistent voice as if pleading an urgent case: I- Know-You-Love-Me. To Thomas he whispered, "ponder What cannot be understood." To John he hummed a praise song to the Creator. To Mary Magdalene, he kissed her with a holy kiss and smiled, "love never fails." To James, John's brother, he calmly spoke one word - "now." To Judas he cried, "don't give up." To Andrew, he warmly quipped, "my humble friend." To Martha he nodded, "welcoming one." To his brother James, "my blood, my heart, my brother." To his father he embraced with tears. To his mother, he just held her face in his hands.

He lost himself in a memory. He relived that memory in real time. His mother was seated in front of him, then 14 years-old. They were discussing the 118th Psalm. His mother's words replay as if Jacob's dream.

"'His steadfast love endures forever.'" 
"The text repeats this twice."
"'His steadfast love endures forever.'" 
"Then the open gate of righteousness. The open gate of righteousness is the open gate of the Lord. They are the same. 
    The righteous walking through that gate, walk through the gate of the Lord, and walk into the city of salvation. 
The one, singular gate of Righteousness and God. It is open to everyone --  
The despised, if righteous, can enter that gate. 
They can enter and be placed as the central, the most important cornerstone of the temple within the gate's walls. 
The last and the least, the lost and the lowliest, they are not forgotten by God whose love is steady and lasting."

His Mother says these words to him, her tears progressing in tenderness. Her voice assured and quiet with the tenacity of the convinced. He slowly shuckling, rocking back and forth, eyes closed as he breathed in her words. Her tears becoming his tears.

"God. Light. Adonai, the One who gave light to the world. The One who is Light. The Holy One gives us, the despised, the forgotten, the despairing and desperate, the poor and the empty, He gives us Light. Like a father starting a fire in a cold house in the dark of winter."

"Our God. Our God. Our God. How can we not extol Adonai? God is good. He is the good that called all of creation good. He is the good that all of creation was said to be.

"Hosannah, Hosannah! Blessed is the name of the Lord. Blessed is the one comes and goes in the name of the God!

His steadfast love is steadfast forever. It is a stubborn love that never lets us go. It is a stubborn love that crafts us, builds us, encloses us like your father builds a house. Men may despise us. They may see our house as small, insignificant, impoverished. But our house is the House of the Lord. We, even we, especially we, are God's masterpiece. We are the cornerstone of the Temple."

"Hosannah, Hosannah! Blessed is the name of the Lord. Blessed is the one comes and goes in the name of the God!

"Yeshua, my beautiful boy, do you understand?" 

Jesus entered Jerusalem and rode to Temple, always the first stop when coming into the City of God. As he neared and the din and the noise became pronounced, he increasingly grew perturbed. Every year at Passover, the Temple became abuzz and busy with the activity of the holy week. But this year it struck Yeshua as wrong. He wasn't sure if this year was especially chaotic or his spirit was simply seeing more. But he could not assuage his poignant feelings of trouble. He climbed off the colt. A street preacher hocking animals for sacrifice and shilling out money seemed to rise above the rest of the cacophony. 

"Yes, God wants your best. Our God is a jealous God. He wants the best of sacrifices. The purest of sacrifices!"

Jesus felt his heart begin to pound. It sounded like heavy stones hitting the ground, reverberating in his feet and the rest of his body. Blood ran to his face, a righteous red. 

 "Offer up God your best! I have the purest of sacrifices, here, the purest for the best price. Need a dove, a lamb, a goat. Well, I've got the best. The absolute best. None better anywhere. They trump everything else here."  

A widow in tow with a child around 10 walked up to the street-preacher. She was adorned humbly, obviously poor, her head covered with a black burka that was worn and weighed with the dust from a long journey. The boy was dressed in worn-out clothes and sandals that were barely hanging on. The preacher clamored about as he stopped to sell the woman something. He worked hard to up-sell her. A dove instead of a pigeon, both the Passover offering for the poor, the dove a bit of a step up. The widow suddenly grabbed her kids and walked away. Her burka fell from her face, agitated and despairing. The preaching vendor returned to his preaching.

The sight of the Temple, the Temple of his people, corrupted by disregard for humanity, disgusted him to the core. The lamb that he was in this moment became a lion. And the lamb he was and would remain, the lamb left remaining in the aftermath, would face the consequence.

All that said, hope, like life, is a tenacious thing.

America, Put Your Swords Away!!

Photo by Joel Auerbach
The Erickson family I grew up in did not really have a concept of Lent. We knew about Palm Sunday. And of course Good Friday was central. Easter was a huge day. Sunrise Service was a highlight every year. My father and I would get up early and make the 10 mile or so drive to our church in the pre-dawn light. We’d most years have the service outdoors and watch the sunrise over the Hudson Valley hills. The moments were filled with a reverent joyfulness. 

The Son has Risen! Oh death where is thy sting? Salvation overcomes sin. Love overcomes hate. Light overcomes darkness. The moral arc of the universe bending toward the side of justice despite the injustice just two days before, the death of innocent’s guileless life. Love conquers all. That was what Easter was all about.

Yes, this was nice, priceless actually. The fresh donuts and hot cocoa after the service wasn’t all that bad either.

I’d stay for the 10am service. My father going to pick up my mother and my other siblings who were not the early risers. Sunday’s service would be especially joyous too. Then a big late lunch at my grandmother’s home with all the colored eggs you needed or wanted.

But Lent? Not something we did. We certainly were not alone. Though, as with Advent, Lent is becoming more common in Evangelical circles.

So when I arrived here 5 years ago, I had to do a crash course on the practice of Lent. I delved into the history and the meaning. Very interesting stuff for this history buff.

Like with Advent, Lent is a mostly post-Nicene practice. In 325, there was a huge council that met in a Roman town called Nicea. The Council of Nicea in 325 is pivotal in church history. For it was then and there that church doctrine and most of church practice was made clear and pretty much mandatory, at least if a church wanted to remain in Rome’s good graces. 

The practice of Lent was by then rather uniform. It consisted of a 40 day fast Monday through Saturday for 6 weeks. The fast ended at 3pm everyday and began again the next morning. Sunday was feast day for those weeks. During Holy Week, between Maundy Thursday and Easter, the fast became especially strict with no meat, no fish, no sexual relations allowed.

However, years before Nicea, things were not as formalized nor as long. Initially, in fact, the fast was merely a Holy Week practice.

The 40-days of Lent are believed to derive from the practices surrounding Baptism. Before a new convert was baptized, there was a 40 day period of fasting, penitence, and contemplation.

Scholars also state that the 40 day period was also tied to the early celebration of the Day of Epiphany, which marks the day that Jesus was baptized. The Day of Epiphany on January 6 would include the baptism of new believers followed by a 40 day period of fasting, prayer, and contemplation. This mirrors Jesus baptism followed by 40 days in the desert doing the same -- fasting, prayer, and contemplation.

What’s more, the practice of paschal Baptism, Baptisms on Easter day, took hold around the time of Nicea and after. We see from all of this that there was a strong link between Easter and Baptism going back to the earliest days of the church.

And what is Baptism? Baptism is basically the practice of 
Christians representing their inner transformation with an external ritual. Inner transformation in the Christian tradition means dying to the old self with its old selfish ways and being reborn to a new self in Christ, a truer self marked by compassion and love and godly wisdom. The baptism simulates the old self going back to the waters of the womb, which amounts to a life submerged in water. This is followed by a rebirth of the new self coming out of the waters.

We now see Lent as a time of practicing humility and repentance. It begins with Ash Wednesday where ministers and priests mark people’s forehead with dirt and say, "from dust you were made, till dust you shall return." Yes, humbling indeed. We are then encouraged to repent and ask forgiveness for our bad choices, our harmful ways, our selfish tendencies.

So with that background in mind, I want to talk about guns in America for a little bit. Let me say first of all thoughts and prayers are nice all year long. But during Lent, those thoughts and prayers have a specific purpose. The purpose of thoughts and prayers during Lent are repentance for our wrongs, our selfishness, our harmful ways. And, America, in the wake of the national tragedy at a high school in Parkland, Florida, we have a lot to repent for.

One of our leaders, in the House of Representative said just yesterday, in the wake of such a tradition, “this is a time to step back and count our blessings… [a time for] pulling together.” No, this is the season of Lent. This is a time to repent of our mindlessness, our heartlessness, our selfishness and seek forgiveness for the sake of transformation.

The Evangelical tradition I was raised in tells me that without repentance, a turning away from wrong, and a transformation, a heart-turning toward righteousness, thoughts and prayers are nothing more than human niceties. Only repentance and transformation makes our thoughts and prayers real and effective. Without the Big Bang of a heart-change, our thoughts and prayers fall on the empty ears.

So I put out the original title for my homily this week – “Big Bang or God” – on Wednesday, in the afternoon, after a morning in Bolton. I then returned home and heard the news about the school shooting in Florida. I immediately thought about changing the title. I worried the title sounded insensitive to the latest news of gun violence. The big bang of guns is too frequent a reality in America. There have been some 8 school shootings in American in 2018, and 2018 is not even 50 days old. And that is just school shootings.

But even if we see the Big Bang in this new destructive way, as the collective big bang of guns everywhere in this country, we are right to ask Big Bang or God?

In a recent CNN op-ed, writer Jay Parini, a practicing Christian, rightly describes America's gun obsession as akin to a cult. He wrote on the 16th, "[too many American citizens] are in something like a cult... [And] like all cults, [the cult of guns is] one difficult to break from, to stop or influence." Parini goes on to say something I could easily have written, albeit maybe not as eloquently, "As a Christian, I'm appalled by the hypocrisy I see among others of my faith, particularly those who are our leaders in government and show eagerness to participate in this cult. They worship false idols in the form of weapons, and turn their back on the teachings of Jesus, who did not equivocate when it came to violence...It is safe to say that nobody in the cult of guns listens to Jesus."

The gun in America has become an idol instead of a tool. It is an idol that has replaced a loving God with weapons of war.

Certainly, this is nothing new. Human beings, even the writers of our most sacred scriptures, have too often replaced God with the idol of war, conflict, and violence. It is our task to ceaselessly resist the temptation to place other gods before the One God of Love, Grace, and Mercy. Idols, surely are luring and give us temporary feelings of safety and security, but an idol in the end is the child of deception and delusion, what classic Christianity calls the devil. Any idol is of the devil, guns included.

What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say about the pervasiveness of weapons and their use on young innocents? If you are a Christian, you simply cannot avoid Jesus. Jesus could not be clearer. In the pinnacle of his teachings, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this: "You have learned that they were told, 'Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.' But what I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left."

When his disciples were like politicians vying for the title of the most powerful, Jesus rebuked his disciples by lifting up children as the benchmark for faith and saying, "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in My name welcomes Me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

When Peter upon Jesus being betrayed and arrested drew a sword and struck a soldier, Jesus rebuked him, "Put your sword away! He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword."

So America, especially those who deem America a Christian nation, I beg you to follow the Christ you claim.

America, put your swords away!!

Transform them into good plows and good work.

America, put your swords away!!

Place them onto the trash heap of history filled with empires and cultures that have withered away on the battle fields and mass graves of our own making.

America, put your swords away!!

We are living and dying by those swords. Our schools are wracked in fear. Our parents are tormented by the images of schools in lock-down, children racing away in terror from mad men with guns.

America, put your swords away!

Our children are dying. The millstone is around our necks. We are drowning in the depths of suffering seas salty like our tears.

America, put your swords away!!

Let this Season of Lent be a season of repentance for our mindlessness, our heartlessness, our selfishness when it comes to the scourge of weapons of war. And may it lead to transformed hearts and new hope.

America put your swords away!

Receive your new baptism, put away old, dying individual selves, enter again the womb of living waters where compassion flows, be born anew rising as a new collective self walking the path of love, peace, and righteousness.

America, put your guns away!!

Music as a Metaphor for God

So I have a friend, a dear friend in fact, someone I respect and admire. When the subject of religion comes up, he half-jokingly and half proudly will declare himself an agnostic when it comes to notions of God and atheist when it comes to organized religion. He points out regularly in these discussions how the Abrahamic view of God is faulty and even dangerous and how organized religion has hindered progress more than its helped.

He is one of many and often has good points. The religion of Jesus, for example, often acts exactly the opposite as Jesus and to what he taught. Religion too often has become ideology and has been behind too many a conflict. It brings to mind that Gandhi quote that is quite common to hear. “I like Christ but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

At the same time, my friend loves music. This love reaches the level of the spiritual. It is sacred to him. Music provides him so much meaning, comfort, and joy. It is as essential to him as God is to others.

Whereas my friend and I disagree when it comes to religion and God, when it comes to music we are in sync. There is common ground there. Music is sacred to me, essential, a source of meaning, comfort, and joy.

This interesting dynamic of otherwise irreligious or even non-spiritual folks loving music on such a fundamental level got me really thinking this week. It got me pondering the notion that maybe for some music is akin to God. Music represents something integral, vital, something consistently there for them when they need it.

What if music is another way to describe, point to, get at what is ultimate, which some call God?

There is some precedence for this idea. Music and religion are closely tied to each other. In the Bible, music is frequently mentioned as a vehicle for worshiping God, as a means to recall God’s gifts in the faithfuls' lives, to remember the joy given from God.

Hymns, psalms, praise songs are a part of the Jewish tradition described in the Hebrew Bible, aka the Old Testament. The same continues in the New Testament. That we sing hymns and songs in this church connects all the way back to the early church and even before to Christianity’s Jewish ancestors.

Music is similarly important in Islam, at least in the musical reciting of the Quran. Buddhism has chanting and percussive instruments that accompany chanting. Hinduism has a long history of sacred music.

Music and religion all over the world are inextricably linked. And it’s been that way from the very beginning.

Even philosophy, religion’s secular cousin, has an important strand of thought on music. I won’t go into it here, but look up Pythagoras and music and you’ll see what I mean.

So music and religion are tied at the hip, as they say.

But I tend to think it goes even deeper than that. Religion and music are not only tied together, but they come from the same place, from the space of the spirit, from the mind of God.

I’d dare say that Music is one of the most perfect metaphors for God we have.

What is a metaphor? Well, a metaphor is a literary device that seeks to describe, show, elucidate a subject not in a literal way as you’d find in a dictionary but in a way that is poetic, literary. An old example of a metaphor is this – Love is a rose. Of course, love is not a rose. But the idea of a rose helps us to understand what love is.

Well, music is a perfect metaphor for God. God is perfected music, for example.

I ask you to bring to mind your favorite piece of music or one of them. Just sit with it a bit. Now, let us probe why music is a perfect metaphor for God.

First of all, music is intangible. You cannot see music. Yes, you can see someone playing music, someone hitting organ keys, like Violet just did, someone blowing air into a sax, trumpet or harmonica, someone strumming a guitar, or striking drums. But you’re not seeing music itself. There are no printed musical notes floating in the air like you’d see pictured in a comic strip. You hear music, not see it.

So, we hear music. But we can also hear a garbage truck crushing trash or wind whistling through an old building. What makes music a special kind of sound?

It is the feeling, the experience of the music in your mind and heart that separates music from other sounds. But that feeling, that experience of music that makes music so special, is intangible.

God is similar. We cannot see God. We don’t hear God in the same way as we hear someone talking to us at a party, using their mouth and their vocal chords. God does not have a mouth or vocal chords. Even those who say they hear God’s still small voice, for example, mean it differently. We sense God, we experience God in our hearts. Like music, experiencing God’s presence is more than rational. 

If God or music are only rational, if we simply intellectually conceive of God or music, we are missing something essential to what music or religion is all about.

Okay, so let us go back to our favorite piece of music. Bring it back to your mind. Try to experience that music in your heart. If you listen closely enough, you can hear something rather profound about music. 

Music is a great uniter. Yes, it unites those who are different and even in opposition a lot. There are plenty of examples of cultural differences and divisions bridged by music. I think about this Palestinian/Israeli chamber orchestra who do just that – bridge the divide through music. Maybe members of Congress should think about all learning to play instruments and creating a marching band.

Maybe the reason music is so good at this is because music includes within it the gift of harmony. What is harmony? What does it do? Well, harmony takes a diversity of notes and unites it into one sound or one song. In other words, music makes real e pluribus unum – out of many, one. Multiple notes, rhythms, instruments, melodies and harmonies can be put together to make one song, one piece of music.

God does the same thing, right? Think about the Trinity. The Trinity is a harmonious trio of Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. One music with 3 equal and interrelating parts.

And for you Unitarians out there, who believe God is one, well, if God is in all, as Ephesians 4:6 says and if God is understood and seen in Creation, as Romans 1:16 says, then God is like the singular melody moving in the universe, uniting the universe with all its diversity and multiplicity into one song. God is a melody playing through the many layers of sound, enabling all sound to move together in one sacred hymn.

Some don’t see this at all, I know. Some may see these thoughts as merely sappy rhetoric. Some, on the other hand, think God to be a real, literal big man upstairs in heaven. Some think God to be a fictional character created by the human mind. And some think music to be simply sound waves that sound “pertty” and that’s all. And that’s okay, I guess.

But could it be for those who, like my friend, find in music something most meaningful, something as close to sacred as something can get, as something that creates, sustains, and enhances human community, could it be for those who see music as essential to their lives, that music is just a gateway to getting at God. Could it be that music and their experience of music is akin to spiritual faith, their deep, soulful experience of music assimilating the experience of God?

Maybe music is a safer, less baggage-laden, less abused and, on a positive note, more open word for God?

It seems to me that indeed some people’s deep love and appreciation for music reaches the level of spiritual faith.

I am not making a value judgment here. I am not saying this is a bad thing necessarily. God works in mysterious ways, as they say, and so who I am to say. What I wonder though is how to open the doors of church to them, how to invite them to share in community with us.

You might remember a couple years back a piece on NPR about this crazy venture in Albuquerque, NM called the Church of Beethoven. As the story goes, a classical musician by the name of Felix Wurman, who played in the local symphony had an idea pop in his head as he performed at a church one Sunday. He thought what if instead of the music being more secondary and background to the service it became central and the focus? It seemed to him the music invoked more spiritual depth than the sermon or the other parts of the sermon. So he tried to make his thought – which was to have music be the focus and poetry and quiet prayer surrounding it -- a reality. The Church of Beethoven was born. And it has been a huge success and spread to other cities.

Now , as a complete replacement for the real mission of the Church – spreading the love of God – the church of Beethoven is not enough and is not advised. But I think it points to the fact that people yearn for sacred experiences and sacred community. The role of a church community is to foster both. And lofty words or discursive notions don’t always get people there. If something like the Church of Beethoven can teach us to learn the importance of simplicity, listening, and less intellectualism, then something good has happened.

As for what would Beethoven think of a church in his name, well, I will answer with a prayer attributed to him and let you be the guide. And this prayer will be a good way to end the words of this sermon.

"O God, give me strength to be victorious over myself. Guide my spirit; raise me from these dark depths that my soul, trans ported through Your wisdom, may fearlessly struggle in fiery flight; for You alone understand and You alone can inspire me.

One more thing. We praise Your goodness that You have left nothing undone to draw us to Yourself; but one thing we ask of You, O God; that You not cease Your work in our improvement. Let us tend toward You, no matter by what means, and be fruitful in good works."