Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Life Renewed

There are two sides to living and dying. What once was dead will be renewed to life again. Norma Lindbergh, a long time member of our church and our newsletter editor died at Torrance Memorial last Monday. The family had decided to take her off the ventilator, and make her as comfortable as possible. Teri, our Pastoral Care Director, called me about mid-morning to say that the family needed us as soon as possible. She was at least an hour away. I, oddly enough, was right around the corner at Lowes, where Frances and I were picking supplies for the work party at church. I said I would go even though I was still in my workout shorts from the Y. By the time I got there, Chaplain James Kim, a wonderful man who has known his own share of loss was already holding the hands of the family around Norma. I came in, joined the circle and we prayed. The next few hours as Norma slipped slowly into the light were some of the most intense I have ever experienced at the side of someone dying. We took turns stroking her forehead, the family crying, and my singing (can you believe it? Singing!) Spirit of Life into her ear, urging her on to the light.

Teri joined us at the very end. We cried, we prayed and we said goodbye. I got back in my car, picked up Frances from Lowes and we continued on with our errands. About an hour later, I pulled the car over. I started to cry. I just couldn’t go on with life as it was. A friend had died, a great being, a corrector of my bad grammar. My heart felt like it was breaking. Frances drove me home.

Later that night, her death began to renew me again. I remembered how Norma would remind me that every bad sentence deserves a second chance. So too, I thought, does every life, every failure, every mistake deserve a second chance. Easter was working on me that night. Easter was renewing my life even in so deep a loss.

We learn again, that beyond the stones of our struggles lies a new life of grace and giving, life renewed again.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jesus Was An Immigrant

As the issue of immigration heats up again in Washington, I wondered what Jesus might have to say about all this.  So on this Maundy Thursday before Easter I offer the following reflection.

Jesus was an immigrant like we are all ultimately immigrants. He was and remains a “spirit person”, a demi-god like figure like the Greek God Dionysus and the Egyptian God, Osiris who came to earth to bring completion and wholeness to humanity. The so- called Gnostics believed that the end of the world Jesus spoke of was only a death unto the suffering of life, believed that Jesus was part of a complicated myth of redemption. Once we find our way home, once we stop our wandering we will cast aside our immigrant status and become whole. Jesus claimed that he was sent by God as an immigrant to be a spiritual bridegroom to resurrect the marriage between the Goddess earth and the God father sky in the guise of love for humanity. The cross references to language of the gospels with the imagery of Greek, Egyptian and Near Eastern religions is startling. Some of the symbols such as the chalice, used for the Last Supper come right out of the goddess cults of Canaanite Mesopotamia two thousand years before Jesus was born.

The essential message of this myth is that Jesus was himself a Jewish version of the mythological “savior” which pagan religions had recognized for thousands of years and that he came to symbolize the initiation and transformation of the sinful into a cult of love. A myth which claims that Jesus never really died, because he never really lived. And that his relationships to the immigrants – to the marginal in his society and to women - was meant to deepen the spiritual understandings of patriarchal Judaism.

There really was a man named Jesus who had tremendous charisma and power, who wandered in search of the lost and lonely, those seeking refuge to find a new home where they could be fed. I really don’t care if he lived or died or even if he ate his Wheaties each morning. What I care about is what he means to me and to you and to millions of others who are looking for a hero, a symbol to give their life meaning.

Who was Jesus? He was a healer. The one who defied expectations and laws to simply touch and heal those in need. One of my favorite stories is when he healed the blind man on the Sabbath. Or the chronically menstruating woman on the Sabbath, or the lepers all on the Sabbath, why? Because compassion for those who are suffering knows no conditions. Beyond the laws, the customs, the prejudices, and the national hatreds, Jesus represents the Buddha heart of love, just do it! Just love. Jesus as healer holds great meaning for me personally. I reminded of him each time I give a wino five bucks.. I know he will spend it on drink, so what? For a moment there is peace.

Who was Jesus? He is the redeemer, not for our depraved nature but for our brokenness, which is really all the word sin means. We are all broken. All in need of forgiveness. Jesus taught us though that we need not follow the laws and make a submission to some “higher power” but simply believe that we are worthy in and of ourselves and that no fault, no mistake is so great that it cannot be forgiven. He called it faith. A faith that we can always be made whole again. And yes, while he called for a reversal of the world order, was he not also calling for a reversal of the human condition. Even the richest amongst us suffer, how can they find forgiveness. The real power of Holy Week is for me, not in the orthodox sense of payment for guilt, but in the transformation from triumphant life, to falling down, to even the death of my ego, and the grace which gives me life again. I have fallen, you have fallen, we all we stumble, but a new day will come and we will start again.

Who was Jesus? He is the one who suffered. The Roman cross was the most barbaric form of death imaginable. But its symbolism is powerful to those who ARE suffering. Not because they have good company in Jesus, but because they understand that God suffers with them. The shortest line in the entire bible is in Luke: He wept. Here was a man who understood what the Buddha had understood. Life does hurt. There is pain. But there is a way beyond that pain. Here the feminine side to the mysteries of Jesus come through in shining glory. Jesus was the first world prophet to truly welcome women into his community. Why? Because women understood the essential nature of suffering as something we go through not around. The feminine archetype of Jesus, claimed the great Carl Jung, was in his acceptance of suffering, not in resignation, but in recognition.

Who was Jesus? He was an immigrant reminding us that we are all immigrants of one sort or another, searching for our home. Jesus reminds us that we all wander but we need not be lost. That those who are suffering, the poor, the undocumented, the unjustly imprisoned, need our help. We are all immigrants of the soul, searching for that deeper meaning which gives our life purpose. There is a little bit of Jesus in each of us, wandering in search of meaning and hope.

I met Sister Mary Alice over 20 years ago working for a credit union. She had come in to take out a personal line of credit to help someone with their medical bills. Part of my job was to ask her why she needed this money. I mean, didn’t they have other means? She had one of those truly brilliant faces, she smiled and her eyes twinkled. It was the first time I have heard what has become a rallying cry for universal health care “Without insurance, life turns out differently. This was her insurance for this family. ‘This family’ were Salvadorian refugees. The father had diabetes and she was paying for dialysis so that he might live a few more years. I was not as sensitive back then “But sister” I asked, “Why are you paying to help them? They aren’t even legally here.” Still smiling, she touched my hand “Because young man, Jesus would want me to do it, I am called to do it.” I shook my head and approved the loan.

Only recently have I come to understand which Jesus she was speaking of in this story. It’s not about reason or certainty, it’s about faith. And faith, a faith in life and life’s promise, is what Jesus is really about. We are all immigrants, looking for the kingdom of love again. Jesus is calling on us to remember who we really are.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Saturday, April 2, 2011


I have begun to focus my ministry each month around spiritual themes. In March I explored the theme of brokenness and how we might begin to find healing. In April we consider the theme of renewal. Spring only reminds us of what is an immutable law of nature; life will always find a way to return. Even in our darkest hours, there are seeds that lay dormant waiting for a little warmth and rain to spring again. It might seem sentimental at best, trite at worst, to proclaim hope in a world as beset with trouble as ours. But consider this: how is that children keep being born, even though their parents know the odds they face. There is something undeniable about wanting to go on, regardless of your circumstances.

The trick is finding a way to go on. Ultimately, all theology (that is, the study of ultimate matters) is pragmatic. What we believe has to make sense to us most of all. When we proclaim that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all, we mean, first and foremost, that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of ourselves. Once we accept that, it is but a short step to loving our neighbor, even when we disagree. In other words, the path to renewal begins with each of us. If we are worthy of living, so are those with whom we share our lives.

Despair begins when we have lost the faith that we are worthy of change. The hardest part of the journey is the first step. We exist for the dual purpose of  reclaiming our worthiness as human beings and then, once attained, going out and helping to heal the world. As our bumper stickers tell it: Nurture Your Spirit, Help Heal the World. At either end we are here for each other, ever loving, ever accepting, ever hoping.

With Grace and Grit, John