Sunday, July 16, 2017

2017.07.16 Be a Seed Already!

The parable Jesus told about the sower who went out to sow seeds is a very familiar story and many people love it. Why? Because the sower is supposed to represent God, or Christ for Christians, this sower keeps on sowing seeds and more seeds and all different seeds— no matter what.
Jesus seizes all the authority and mastery he can summon, saying LISTEN! A sower went out to sow.  The farmers must have felt excited. Expectant. What would Jesus say? They knew that land was life. Maybe they’d get some hot agricultural tips.  I bet too they might have felt some anxiety, because this was Jesus and he had a habit of challenging them in odd ways.

LISTEN! he said, and listen they did, perhaps too hard, too eagerly, too selfishly.  

What happened to them, happens to us also. Because Jesus elaborated all the different kinds of soil—hard and dry, rocky, choking, no nutrients—and some good soil, they began to focus on the soil. No, obsess. What kind of soil are we, or literally if you were a farmer, do we have?  They, like we, quickly forgot about the faithful sower and the seeds. I’d bet that most interpretations of this parable focus on the soil alone. Is my soil, my church’s soil, good enough to receive, nourish and sprout more God’s seeds?

Let it go—for Christ’s sake.

Most of us develop such a toxic case of soil-angst that we forget about the seed with all its potential.

Still, being a seed isn’t easy. Seeds are tiny. They have no will of their own. They are scattered to and fro, and they don’t know what kind of soil they’ll hit. The destiny of a seed is vulnerable indeed. Yet, seeds have enormous potential—enormous potency. Seeds sprout. It is through seeds that Christ potentiates Life, if not Love.

Living in the city I am continuously amazed at how the tiniest of flowers and grass blades pop up between bricks and concrete stones. What resilience and strength these little seeds have to keep on growing toward light and air through thick concrete. They always sprout—no matter how much concrete we trowel on. Seeds are unstoppable. Just a few days ago, I saw three men on their hands and knees laboriously picking small green tufts of growth and tiny wild flowers out from between the concrete stones on a front sidewalk. They worked for a stone cutting outfit and had been hired to repave the area in front of the garage. But first…..they had to get rid of all the sprouted seeds. I laughed out loud. So you think those little seeds will never return to sprout, do you?

Contrary to all logic, tiny useless seeds sprout amidst concrete—real concrete as well as the concrete that forms around our hearts, the concrete that causes us to have rigid set attitudes and assumptions. God’s seeds always sprout.

When I feel sure that something is right, makes sense, or even is the way of God, I have to FORCE, yes, force, myself to stop and rethink things—not till after I’ve argued my case of course. I could be wrong, or the tradition, or my culture, or everything I learned in school, or what my parents taught me, or my church believed could be wrong. Or it all might need tilling or some more seeds. God the sower doesn’t cultivate wheat fields. God cultivates souls. God willingly and willfully without force, sows seeds and seeds and more seeds—many varieties of seeds over and over and over.
Years ago in Connecticut I worked as a chaplain in an alcohol/drug rehabilitation center. Many patients saw themselves  as “bad seeds” They were ashamed of themselves for their disease, and their relapses, their painful, painful addictive patterns. Oh, they readily condemned themselves—bad seed, bad soil, bad God, bad religion, bad chaplain—everything. They did this all of course with raucous laughter and good humor, which I saw as a sign that they were God’s seeds and didn’t know it.

Violating the separation of church and state, I used biblical stories a lot to help them see that God wasn’t the vengeful judge they thought God was, and that they weren’t bad seeds. The sower story was very popular, second only to the prodigal son. The stories were seeds to re-potentiated them, give them hope.

I would say something like: Listen! You’re a seed and if you hit a rough patch God/Higher Power will sow you again, and again.” There was a hush. In that hush I would quietly add: “with your help.”

And so it is for us: God never stops sowing you, never stops potentiating you. No matter how much concrete has been slathered on your soul, you are a seed to be sown by God-in-Christ. So listen! Hey!………

Be a seed already.







Sunday, July 9, 2017

2017.07.09 Can You Still Love? Two Healing Stories.

My seminary learning experience at Yale Divinity School took place in a religiously diverse environment—one reason the school continues to thrive and is economically viable. But it isn’t just the sensible economics, or even the obvious ecumenicity, that gives this school, or any school, a soul of its own. It takes real people and real stories.

Nellie was a student with multiple challenges. She’d been in a car accident on her way to begin her college education. Her mother was driving. It was an accident—an accident that left Nellie with severe brain damage, unable to walk or talk except in very halting and barely intelligible ways. I was scared of Nellie. I didn’t know what to do or how to be with her, or what to do with my shame. I admit I avoided Nellie and feared for myself as well—hardly exemplary of a woman who wanted to serve God in ministry or take a shot at christlikeness.

I wondered how Nellie had forgiven her mother. I wondered why Nellie wanted to go to seminary and get ordained in spite of her severe limitations. One professor, an Episcopal priest, worked with Nellie as a tutor. He typed out her words for papers, and made sure she was accompanied safely to and from her classes. It all felt like a full-blown miracle to me—too difficult to digest.

Yet Nellie was a vibrant presence among us stressed-out, worried bunch of first-year seminarians, most of us not knowing a damn thing about this God we were there to study, if not master. Nellie stood out for her smile. Some days I thought she herself was a prayer. How could she seek God after all that had happened to her?  Some students reported that when she had a beer or two her speech suddenly became intelligible. Nellie’s being there among us must have had something to do with the impossible love of God—the love that scared me and made me run the other way. 

Now I wonder if Nellie's passion for God was not for the God the church traditionally presents, the Omnipotent one with all the power, but rather for the God she found in her own broken heart—the same one I’d found in mine as a young child.

I’ve thought a lot about Nellie over the 35 years since I graduated. What ever happened to her?

Google-god!!—the great connective search engine—helped me out.

Nellie did graduate from Hampshire which took her seven years. In that time she felt called to serve God. “Serving God became her salvation,” wrote Michael Vitez, journalist and Director of Narrative Medicine at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Vitez has written Nellie’s story for his book on the healing power of story. 

Nellie went on to graduate from seminary and was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1993. She served in Chestnut Hill United Church (formerly United Methodist) until 2014 when she retired. It would take Nellie as much as five weeks with blurry vision and one palsied finger to type out 2000 words for a sermon. She then selected different parishioners to read her words to the congregation. Oh Godde, what a privilege! Nellie attended the Episcopal General Convention in Denver in 2000, where a special ramp for the entire altar procession was constructed so Nellie could read the Gospel using her voice box. 

Here is a photo of Nellie on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You see she is still smiling that smile I remember so well, the soul-smile that made Nellie shine.
Nellie died in August, 2016, at age 64. 



Only recently have I fully understood and wept deeply for Nelly and for me. The painful beauty Nellie gave me, stirred up as I read about Ed Bennett (1959-2017) in my Yale Alumni Magazine. Ed became a quadriplegic after a diving accident just before he entered his sophomore year at Yale University.

Here is Ed at a wedding in 1990, surrounded by his Yalie friends who called him “Edder”.
“Can I piece a life together?” Ed had asked a rehab psychologist, Lester Butt, when he was facing life with minimal movement in one arm only.

“Can you still love?" Butt replied.

The rest of Ed’s wheelchair-bound life was spent living the answer to that awakening question in the affirmative. He was the first quadriplegic to graduate from Yale College and went on to attend Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School but did not complete those degrees. He didn’t think his temperament was suited to pastoral work, although friends remember Ed as one with an “uncanny ability to bring people together.” Note that smile! The church could have used him. I wish he and Nellie had met. Obviously, they both could still love.

Ed wrote this in an essay for YDS in 1995:

“I have thought a great deal over the past few years about what is important to me. Perhaps my paralysis, maybe my acute experience of mortality  . . .  something has forced into my intimate, quiet moments the sense that God matters. My friends matter. The suffering of other people matters. And when I look at my profoundest satisfactions—friends, ideas, helping others, family—I do not see political or intellectual connections among them. Instead, I see a world of subtlety and wonder that lives in the spiritual world.”

Can you still love? 

I’m trying, Ed and Nellie. Thanks to you, I’m trying. And thanks be to God whose Hope incarnate forgives me—over and over—in my own clumsy efforts to love. And thanks to the Spirit who gives me eye and heart to spot healing stories, call them gospel, write them down, and send them forth—seeds for healing.  











Sunday, July 2, 2017

What Really Do We Celebrate On Independence Day?

It’s July 4th, almost, a time when Americans wave American flags and celebrate our independence from British occupation and control of our land. We appreciate the liberties we enjoy, and we know there are other nations who do not have such freedoms. Some of us wonder if we're as free as we think we are. Still, we wave our national flag with pride.

Our flag has great colors. Fifty white stars on blue, each representing a state—the pluribus (many) of us. Then the thirteen red and white streamers, flowing freely and representing the thirteen British colonies that declared independence from Great Britain and became the first states in our union—unum. We are meant to be many AND one. Our nation is only 241 years young, and we are having trouble with the unum of our motto E pluribus unum. Yet we still wave our flag.


I like our flag. I do not, however, like our national anthem. "Oh, say can you see. . ." doesn't see far enough. It is time-limited, written to celebrate a particular military victory, and full of the language of bombs and war—hence fireworks with rockets and booms of bombs "bursting in air" through the night. I don’t mind making noise to celebrate but I admit to resenting the consistent language of war and destruction attached to patriotic celebrations.

Warlike language is also attached, disastrously I think, to issues of health, mental and physical—we “battle” cancer, “fight” depression or a cold, enter “combat” against diseased parts of our very own body, then speak of “winning”or “triumph” when we feel better? What is this odd war we wage right within our own flesh?  And what if we don’t “win”?  Warlike language is a habit to change.

On July 4th do we celebrate battles and victories won, or are we celebrating— with light and sound and loud booms in the sky— the sheer joy of our diversity "bursting in air?


The spiritual meaning of this day, I believe, goes far beyond our own nation’s independence. There’s no" us" and "them". We honor ourselves, and we must also honor national freedom and dignity for all lands. It’s a day to remember the mutual interdependence of all humankind, all species of animal life, and all vegetation—an interdependence founded in the measureless vision of a Creator God. Trying to live too independently is perilous. We live well together or we perish together.

I feel the same about my religion. It’s mine and I cherish it. But other hearts have faith as worthy and beloved as mine. We live well together or we perish. That’s worth a firecracker or two! A vision to keep us alive.

Nothing expresses this spiritual magnanimity better than the beautiful music of Jean Sibelius (1899) and the expansive lyrics of the Finnish national anthem, Finlandia.


Finlandia

This is my song, O God of all the nations,

A song of peace, for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is;

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;

But other hearts in other lands are beating

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.


My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,

And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine;

But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,

And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,

A song of peace for their land and for mine.