Saturday, December 31, 2016

Stories for the New Year

Here is the story most of us remember,  once upon a time there was a nomadic family, Abraham and Sarah wandering the desert in search of God’s promised land.  Sarah was barren and in order to give her husband a son she told him to lie with her handmaiden, Hagar, a Bedouin slave.  Hagar bore Abraham a son who she named Ishmael.  In time, Sarah grew jealous of Hagar and had Abraham banish her and her young son to the desert to die.  Hagar and Ishmael did not die but were saved by God and went off to found the tribes of Arabia, the ancestors of Islam.  Sarah gave birth to her own son Isaac who inherited his father’s blessing and became the father of the Israelites.
This story, a compilation of Jewish and Muslim traditions, is in large part the histo-cultural reason for the millennia old conflict between Arabs and Israelis.  Any one who tells you that “it’s just a story” is not appreciating the power the stories have to tell.  What if this story had a different outcome?  What if Sarah had not had Hagar and Ishmael banished to the desert?  What if they had lived, as was the nomadic custom of the day, together in a multi female household and Ishmael and Isaac had grown up as brothers?  Would the outcome be any different?  I believe it would.
Stories do more than just entertain.  Stories speak to our values, in fact, the oldest stories inform our values.  Any of the German fairy tales inform much of our American work ethic: the boy who cried wolf, teaches us not to lie; the Jewish story about the Three Little Pigs informs our work ethic; the tale of the frog prince, teaches us the virtue of seeing the inner self.  Stories are a means to meaning, or as the author Roy Hedin puts it:
“Stories are the central means by which we demonstrate our desire for a meaningful life. It is through stories that we convey our central wishes, fears, and values. It is through stories—and through the sense of our lives as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end—that we create a sense of purpose and direction. It is through the stories we tell and the stories that engage our interest that we reveal—and discover—where we are coming from and where we are going. It is through telling our stories and listening to the stories of others that we connect with them on the deepest level. And it is through the reshaping of our stories that we reshape our sense of purpose and direction in times of uncertainty, stress, and tragedy”.  (From Roy Hedin
No minister could convey to you the deeper questions and answers to life without the use of the many stories we use.  Stories are more than just a tool to giving meaning they are a system by which meaning is conveyed most effectively.  This is why stories are such a necessary part of our worship celebration.  You will forget all the niceties of any well crafted theological argument, I can assure you, but if I start and end with a story, you will remember that.  In fact, better yet, you will retell the story and there lies the real power.

Story telling is more than a recreation it is, in short, the “art of meaning”.  Theology, the system of making meaning is simply not possible without stories.
Occasionally, I am asked if a story “really happened”.  I smile that wily smile and reply “if it’s not true it should be”.  Such an answer is akin to the best definition of a myth I ever heard from an eight year old: myths are something that are false on the outside but true on the inside.  Whether the story is true or not is not the point.  The story is the point.  This is a church, not a court of law, our search for truth and meaning, is not a Joe Friday “just the facts ma’m” endeavor; it’s a meaning making endeavor.  Most of the stories I tell you are true in the factual sense, all the stories I tell you are true in the mythic sense.
Myths are the cultural stories we tell to remind us of our deepest values and meanings.  And we are so starved for myths these days.  So unable to feel and experience the heroic in our lives.  How can we go beyond the facts and the spin to the really important stories of our lives?  We can remember and retell the old stories first.  The bible, for instance, is a treasure trove of stories, as useful as any.  Full of tragedy, wrong, right, justice, love, hate, pathos.  These and much more recent myths begin to reanimate our lives with a different sense of meaning.
Stories help us make sense of life.  This is why we do well to learn how to tell those stories.  Better story tellers make better story hearers. More importantly, start this new year with the most important story of your life: yours.  Your story is the stuff of legend already.  You have as many adventures as any preacher, more so.  I make to you today an invitation:  write down some of those great stories from your own life and send them to me.  I would love to read them.  Let me know if I have your permission to use them in a sermon with or without your name.  Share them with those who know you.  William Ellery Channing put it so well:  Let your life preach better than words. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Gift of Presence

A homeless man rouses himself from his cardboard box on Manhattan’s lower East Side to the sounds of dockworkers slinging fish off the early morning catch. Early rising ensures good eating.  He rummages through the dumpsters behind the tourist restaurants.  Left over garlic bread.  Some pasta.  Even cheesecake.  The bottles and cans he stuffs into his shopping cart for some cash later.  The sun is just breaking through the fog and he sees a lottery ticket flash in the sun.  He picks it up and stuffs into his pocket.  Its past noon when he remembers the lottery ticket and holds it up to the lotto numbers in the paper he found.  The first number matches, then the second, the third, can this be happening, the fourth and, could it be, the fifth, all match!  His eyesight isn’t so good and he wants to be sure.  Things like this don’t happen to him.  But it is a winner.  $20, $50 who knows?  He finds a store to cash it. 

Later that day he is squinting into the bright lights of the New York stations, this newest of media darlings will now receive $243,000  a year for the next twenty years.  A chic looking woman in a leather mini-skirt shoves a microphone into his face “How do you feel?” she asks.  He stares back, dazed, she smells nice.  It had been a very long time since anyone had asked him that question.  A very long time indeed.  (Adapted from What’s so Amazing About Grace? By Phillip Yancy, 1996)
When I first heard this story from the Christian author Phillip Yancy I recalled smirking a bit.  How nice, how Hollywood, how wonderful for this guy, he certainly deserved it.  But the poignancy of the story hit home a little deeper when I found out that this man, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, actually used most his money to help fund the Coalition for the Homeless in New York. Finding the ticket was gift, using the money to save the world was miraculous.

I write often about grace, the unexpected gifts of life that seem to beckons us on to daring rectitude.  I named my blog facing grace, as well as my upcoming title; because I believe we need to stop excusing this good fortune as good luck, accept it as an unbidden call for a new presence in our life. People who use their wealth or good fortune to make the lives of others better are called by a more cynical world as foolish.  Generosity is so often mistaken for careless wealth.  And while it is true that some will take advantage of that generosity, far more benefit from it than we realize.
We pass by the festivals of light, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice. This is a time of the year that brings out the best and the worst, the hope and the despair. I have heard from many about the despair they are feeling in this season in particular, with the state of the world, our country, our worries for the planet, those at risk, even how we will be able to talk to each other over economic and racial divides. There is a lot of despair out here… and a lot of hope. My message is to realize the gift of being present in that hope. Because regardless of how we worry, none of that worry is going to change the world. What will change the world is being able first to find comfort in our families, our friends, this congregation and then to respond with compassion to those who are suffering now and in the future. In other words, there is a gift in being present, especially now when are days seem so dark; to be present in the light, and to act with compassion out of that presence. Yes, the world is in bad shape, but it does us no good to see ourselves at the mercy of forces beyond our control. We must start with where we are, now, here in this moment.

On a street corner in New York city a wild eyed man with the look of desperation is carrying a sign up and down Fifth Avenue which reads  “Repent, Jesus is coming, the End is Near”.  People walk around  him and gaze uncomfortably perhaps thinking about the state of their own immortal souls.  Then on the opposite side of the street is a small Buddhist Monk smiling with another sign “Be Happy Now.  Buddha already here.”
I commend to you this teaching. Buddha already here. Part of my own spiritual practice is a deep meditation on loving kindness. After ten minutes of breathing I repeat silently “May peace come to the ones I love, may peace come to the ones I know, may peace come to those I have met briefly, may peace come to those I consider my enemies.” And then I breath in and out and repeat the mantra again. That is the gift of presence I bring to myself.
The fact is we do everything but live in the moment. Anxiety and fear about the past and the future is the very nature of the suffering that makes us human.  What would it be like if we could remember to simply live here in the now?

People live as if the present moment as if it were a problem, an obstacle that  people actively live disliking the present moment.  I can understand that if you are in pain, but not in the imagination of pain.  Some people actively live disliking the “isness” of the present moment and that is their habitual state of consciousness.  When you realize that the now is all there is – your entire life consists of the now – any emotion you feel, every experience you have happens in the now.  And yet we seem to spend our entire lives living in anything but the now.  The now is some abstract thing to most of us, when in fact it is the only reality we really have.

That is the gift of presence. The comfort of knowing that at this moment, I am here, I am warm even while I am fill in the blank…nervous, happy, sad, you name it. And then with that presence opening your heart up to accepting that and moving on. I think we get caught up in the “what ifs”. What if I can’t pay my bills? What if my kids need extra care? What if minorities are put in even more danger? What if I die? (well, yes, you will die but probably not today). Holding as much of the present as possible will help you deal with the future. Keep that in mind as we go through these days of advent in preparation for the light to come.
Two weeks ago I had the honor of moderating a panel of local leaders in Norwalk on the issue of white privilege sponsored by the NAACP and the Norwalk City Human Relations Commission. The panel included a white Quaker, an African American Pastor, our own Bob Welsh, and three youth of color from a local high school. I asked them some leading questions about race and privilege and the conversation deepened at times feeling uncomfortable for the panelists and the audience. When I took questions and comments from the floor, that feeling of uneasiness deepened more. Anger and pain from some at being shut out of their rights and questions of power and privilege swirled around the room. It was challenging for many of us who were there to hear that pain. It was a challenge to manage it, I can tell you. But as I was moderating this I remembered my practice to be present with what was happening. To not take it personally or to shut these emotions down. There was a deeper truth, a gift of being heard that was before us all.

That night after I went home, I remember telling Francis how exhausting that was. And she, in her usual wisdom, said “but for you, that exhaustion will pass, for many of those folks, that struggle goes on every day. We did more to open up the flood gates of despair then we may know.” She was right of course, that evening was a gift of presence. Amidst the struggle and the hurt there were moments of deep humanity. I felt it and others did as well.

Your entire life consists of the present moment, there never has been anything but now.  We spend almost all of our time thinking, worrying, reliving the past or worrying, imagining and fearing the future.  But the future never arrives as the future, it only arrives in the now, the present moment.
The other day I found myself thinking about Robin Williams who won an Oscar for his part in Good Will Hunting portraying a psychologist counseling a brilliant but troubled young man while himself deeply grieving the loss of his wife and his very state of being.  Ironically, Williams believe until late in his life to live in the now.  He began his  career doing improv and standup.  That is living in the now.  As Robin Williams once said “The tragedy of life is not death but what dies inside us while we live”.  Mr. Williams’ failing, his dying inside, was to imagine his future as a has been.  Not living in the present of his adoring fans and his warmth but the past of success measured against the failure of his ailing body and career.  Yes, he had depression.  Lots of people do.  But he also had Lewy body disease which mimics Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The fear of his future became his present. But its only when you fail to recognize the gifts of the present that you lose your orientation. 
So, as you go about your days ahead, consider another kind of gift this holiday season. Consider the gift of your undivided presence to the ones you love or even to yourself.

And there is the irony isn’t it?  The only experience that really counts is the now.  The rest is all in our heads, a drug far worse than reality.
As John Pine sang it:
Blow up your TV. Throw away your paper, move to the country, find a little home.
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, Try to find Jesus, all on your own. Or as my teacher Bo Lozoff once wrote me,  “Human Life is Very Deep, Our Dominant Lifestyle is not.”

With Grace and Grit, John