Ever since I first visited Hope Church Boston in the summer of 2003 I’ve nurtured a dream for the church: a dream of extravagant welcome and non-judgmental inclusivity. The seeds of this dream were planted at the Sunday evening Jazz service at First Church in Cambridge where I first encountered a truly open Communion table. I found it expressed at Hope in the welcome statement read each Sunday at the beginning of the service. It’s a welcome message I’ve adapted and continue to proclaim at the beginning of worship each week, both as a tip of the hat to the community that ordained me and as a statement of my belief that no one should be excluded from meaningful experiences of the Divine. I recently had the chance to sit down and record it with the help of Nick DiLullo, who is a member of First Church in Farmington and a fabulous videographer.
Thou that has given so much to me,
Give one thing more – a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if thy blessings had spare days;
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy Praise. – George Herbert
As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve been exploring gratitude with a small group at the church. Through poetry, prose, holy writings, movie clips, and multimedia presentations we have pondered both the abundance of reasons for being grateful and the effects of gratefulness – on the self, on others, on the world, on the Divine.
Gratitude opens the great warehouse doors of the soul, allowing light and love to flood in and out. Gratitude enlarges the capacity to live in the moment – this moment – and to live it well. Gratitude acknowledges the miracle of being and opens the heart to wondrous possibilities. It activates and animates faith.
Gratitude need not be complicated. All it requires is awareness, a growing mindfulness. It is a response that needs to be cultivated over time through simple acknowledgement. The more intentionally one practices grateful awareness, the more the practice of seeing the world with the eyes of blessing becomes possible. And the more we see the world through the eyes of blessing, the more we, ourselves, will be transformed into a blessing.
The practice of gratefulness is so beautifully captured in this moving clip by Louie Schwartzberg:
Doing as much work in front of my computer as I do, I find it helpful at times to go to places on the web where I can find refreshment and renewal. Rather than frequent pilgrimages to news sites where the hype of “breaking news” is overdone, I find the sites offered below help me gain perspective and inspiration. They often lead to a reflective walk around the sanctuary or through the neighborhood.
One of the first places I like to go is The Painted Prayerbook, where United Methodist minister and artist Jan Richardson brings together writing, art, and faith in a way that leads to deep reflection and prayer. I am astounded by the volume and depth of the work she does.
The United Church of Christ’s daily devotionals can be received by email or accessed on the denomination’s website (you’ll need to scroll down and select the reading for the day when accessing online). True to the identity of the UCC, these reflections are inclusive and seek to respond to real-world concerns and questions.
Contemplative Outreach, according to its vision statement, “is a community of individuals and Centering Prayer groups committed to living the contemplative dimension of the Gospel in everyday life.” Father Thomas Keating, a guru of centering prayer, is one of the founding members. The articles, videos, and newsletters under the resources tab provide helpful reminders and practical advice about the practice of contemplative prayer.
Finally, for now, as a preacher I enjoy visiting WorkingPreacher, where scholars comment on the texts prescribed for the week’s lectionary. I believe anyone who wants to engage the Bible can gain much out of the insights offered by a range of commentators. In find the work of David Lose particularly insightful and very much enjoy his “voice.”
How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall as Col. P.H. Anderson read the letter below from a former slave. The colonel had asked the emancipated Jourdon Anderson to return from Ohio to Tennessee to again work for him. The response is filled with grace, justice, humor, and truth-telling. (I came across the letter at Letters of Note while on my regular perusal of Arts and Letters Daily.)
August 7, 1865
To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
This week’s article for the church newsletter is a call to action in solidarity with the people of Syria who are under assault by their government. Here’s the extended version:
As I write this the city of Homs in Syria is under fierce bombardment by forces loyal to that country’s president. Syria is a nation divided, on edge, at war. Diplomatic efforts by Arab nations and the international community have come to naught. Efforts at the United Nations to hold Syria’s leader to account and force a peaceful end to an increasingly violent conflict have been stifled by China and Russia, where powerful governments fear international support of popular uprisings of the kind they too face.
Rising on the tide of last year’s “Arab Spring,” which saw oppressive regimes overthrown in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, many in Syria took to the streets to oppose their government’s repressive policies and iron grip on power. The response from the government was violent, so violent that some of the people took up arms to fight back. Unlike the people of Libya, they’ve done so with little or no material support from the world’s powerful North American and European democracies.
This conflict seems a world apart from us in West Medford, Massachusetts, USA, where we have the privilege of tuning out what’s happening in the rest of the world. We’re far from Syria, which is a Middle Eastern country. And what distances us ever further from the Middle East is the way we’ve been taught to “other” our brothers and sisters in that part of the world. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ve been taught to exoticize and vilainize Middle Easterners, especially Muslim Arabs. Our unquestioned racism runs deep, as does our desire to live comfortable lives at the expense of paying attention.
Yet there’s a lot at stake for us in the Syria situation and in other nations where people are rising to free themselves from oppression. If we truly value our God-given right to live freely into our full potential we need to stand in solidarity with those whose freedoms are crushed. It doesn’t matter on which continent their countries are. It doesn’t matter what religion they follow or what their racial or cultural heritage is.
We need to ask ourselves what is the cost of us doing nothing? What is the cost of us turning our gaze away because the truth is simply too inconvenient or the call on our hearts too burdensome? Many civilians are being killed in Syria as in other nations. Many children are being deprived of an existence that is peaceful and promising. Too many lives are being shattered by shells and bullets. We simply cannot be complacent.
Whether we offer our prayers, our influence, or material support, we have to do something. But first we have to be aware. Remember Jesus’ words: “watch and pray.” We have to follow the news, finding it on foreign websites if the coverage in our own country falls short. Then we need to pray and act consistently with our prayers by writing the Syrian representatives in Washington and at the UN, calling our Congressional representatives and urging them to take this situation seriously, participating in letter-writing campaigns organized by human rights organizations, or supporting the Red Cross/Crescent with donations so that the wounded can be cared for.
The time has come for us to act. The cost to democracy is too great for us to ignore the perils of our sisters and brothers in other nations. The cost to our souls is too great for us to live so comfortably that we ignore the plight of others.
Here’s a shout-out to my dear, now long-lost friend Jonathan who gifted me with a book of Rumi’s poetry. It’s taken me years to pick it up, but now that I have I am captivated by the Great Poet. I am also reminded of how precious friendship is.
Here is Rumi’s Spring is Christ
Everyone has eaten and fallen asleep. The house is empty.
We walk out to the garden to let the apple meet the peach,
to carry messages between rose and jasmine.
Spring is Christ,
raising martyred plants from their shrouds.
Their mouths open in gratitude, wanting to be kissed.
The glow of the rose and the tulip means a lamp
is inside. A leaf trembles. I tremble
in the wind-beauty like silk from Turkestan.
The censer fans to flame.
The wind is the Holy Spirit.
The trees are Mary.
Watch how husband and wife play subtle games with their hands.
Cloudy pearls from Aden are thrown across the lovers,
as is the marriage custom.
The scent of Joseph’s shirt comes to Jacob.
A red carnelian of Yemeni laughter is heard
by Muhummad in Mecca.
We talk about this and that. There’s no rest
except on these branching moments.
From The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.
One of my favorite exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is the 12th Century fresco that once served as apse for a Catalonian Chapel. Christ is the central figure holding a scroll reading “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but through me.” He is surrounded by symbols representing the four evangelists after whom the Gospels are named. One tier below are the 12 apostles and below them fading depictions of Bible stories.
While I’m admittedly saddened that it no longer adorns the area behind the altar of Santa Maria Del Mur in the Spanish Pyrenees, I am captivated by its intimacy. It awes me to a posture of prayer and worship. There’s something deeply personal about it. Perhaps it’s the love of artist or patron or both, or maybe it’s the wide-eyed Jesus. It could just be the contrast it offers to stark white-walled museum.
I sometimes wish I could recreate a space like this in my home. That’s quirky, I know. It doesn’t seem very Congregationalist or particularly practical given that I live in a parsonage. Yet having an intentional space in a home for worship, devotion, and prayer is not uncommon. It’s practiced throughout the traditions to enhance the spiritual journey.
The purpose of such a space would be a literal way to enter one’s closet and pray to God in secret as Jesus suggests in Matthew 6:6. Of course, this needn’t be an elaborate chapel with a semicircular fresco. All it would take is love and a few objects that move me to a greater awareness of God’s presence. Icons, photographs, a painting, mosaics, or symbols like the cross or chalice would do. Rocks, water, and flowers would do, too. Perhaps a window looking out on a bird feeder would suffice.
Rather than a monument or idol, it would be a space in which, through which, I could rest in God’s love and grace. I guess I’ve just stumbled upon a New Year’s resolution. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be able to post a picture of what this space looks like.
I today found this statement of St. Irenaeus and think it beautifully captures the spirit of an embodied theology:
The tender flesh itself
will be found one day
to be capable of receiving,
and yes, full
capable of embracing
the searing energies of God.
Go figure. Fear not.
For even at its beginning
the humble clay received
God’s art, whereby
one part became the eye,
another the ear, and yet
another the impetuous hand.
Therefore, the flesh
is not to be excluded
from the wisdom and the power
that now and ever animates
all things. His life-giving
agency is made perfect,
we are told, in weakness–
made perfect in the flesh.
– St. Irenaeus (c. 125-c. 210), adapted and translated by Scott Cairns in Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life (Paraclete Press, 2007. p5-6)
Congratulations to Christine Evans on her ordination at Hope Central Church last night. And congrats to the Hope community for their 15th ordination in six years. Five more candidates are in the process, seeking ordination either in the United Church of Christ or the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Christine, a fellow Disciples minister, asked me to offer the charge during the service and I thought I’d share my humble offering:
Reverend Christine Evans, by the grace of God you stand before us this night as an ordained minister in the Church of Jesus Christ. And what a night it is! There’s something about the way the bright light of this sanctuary is breaking into the darkness of the world outside as we approach the longest night. There’s something about voices raised in the harmony of song drifting on the cold night air.
One night a couple of years ago you and I were part of a group studying monasticism at Glastonbury Abbey, sitting in the living room as the professor read from the Epilogue to Thomas Merton’s Sign of Jonas: “The night, O My Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me. Baptized in the rivers of night, Gethsemani has recovered her innocence. Darkness brings a semblance of order before all things disappear. With the clock slung over my shoulder … it is my time to be the night watchman in the house that will one day perish.”
Christine, I charge you to be the night watchman in the house that will one day perish. The church as we know it needs to be born anew with the coming of the reign of peace and justice, the reign of Christ for which we watch and work these long nights of Advent.
And as a watchman I charge you to be vigilant, alert to the in-breaking of God’s light into the world and to sound the alarm that will awaken a sleeping humanity to the dawn of hope. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “It is the God who said: ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 4:6)
Christine, as a herald of the Good News of the coming of the light of Christ, I charge you to let your light shine by living a life worthy of being called a Disciple of Christ. And as a minister of Word and Sacrament you will need to become ever more intimate with the Scriptures, the traditions and history of the church, the spiritual practices that animate faith; grounding yourself in a life of watchfulness and diligence. The church does not need perfection in these tasks, it merely asks for faithfulness.
You have chosen to be ordained in a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. And you are charged as part of the one body of Christ to welcome all to the Lord’s Table, even as God has welcomed you and each of us. The welcome you extend will need to be extravagant, even seditious, in its inclusivity. You are charged to stand firm on the foundation of God’s steadfast love and in so doing withstand a world of warring madness, bigotry, and the powers of domination and oppression.
To serve faithfully in the office to which you have been ordained, Christine, never underestimate the time and effort you need to rejuvenate your spirit, soul, and body. Care well for the treasure God has entrusted to you. Consider yourself charged to find moments of rest and relaxation, moments to breathe, and to enjoy the simple beauties of life. I charge you to laugh heartily, eat healthily (and sometimes unhealthily), and stretch your body in all those yoga poses you so enjoy.
Christine, as you nurture your own spirit, soul, and body and the spirits, souls, and bodies of those you will serve, make this ministry your own. Let your imagination soar even as you bend low and stick your hands into the earth, letting the light of Christ shine in where it is needed to make new things grow. Don’t be afraid to go beneath the surface. It was Walt Whitman who wrote: “From this hour I ordain myself free of limits and imaginary lines” (Song of the Open Road) and I charge you to live your life prophetically in the fullness of the freedom that Christ Jesus offers.
Lastly, in the words of Paul, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. … May the God of peace sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, 23)
May it be so. Amen.