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Archive for the ‘sojourner’ Category

Tina and I were sitting having breakfast at Original Steve’s Diner in the strip mall on Panorama Trail one morning last week. The waitress had showed us to a booth next to one of the front windows and sitting in a booth directly behind us were four women dressed in bright red and green Christmas sweaters, laughing and exchanging presents wrapped in silver paper with oversized gold and red bows tied to the same color ribbon running lengthwise on the box, obviously the bows and the wrapping were done by someone with great skill and patience.

“I am telling you,” one woman said, “we were all laughing and singing. It was like waking up from a dream about winning the lottery, but the dream was real.”

“It was like after being immersed in darkness for a long time,” another woman spoke. “Dark like in the very beginning of life until God said, “let there be light, then there was light. All of the uncertainty, the troubled dreams, the confusion and chaos were gone because the light chased it all away.”

“Oh, it was just like that,” a third women said. They all laughed and I was starting to very slowly cut my one big blueberry pancake that covered the entire plate, drizzling maple syrup on it while I was listening to the women’s conversation. Of course, Tina was giving me a look that said I shouldn’t be eavesdropping, except they were talking so loud I had a hard time not listening to them.

“Yes,” the second women said, “it was just like that and we were so thankful that we had gone. Sort of the way you are when the lights come back on after a thunderstorm.”

“But, so much more breathtaking.” The third woman said.

“So, when did you get to Bethlehem?” The fourth woman asked.

“Well, this was a regular pilgrimage people make during Advent,” the first woman said. “Thousands of people were there. It was amazing and frightening because it is Israel and the political situation was in upheaval, but at the same time it was exciting, especially finding out where everyone was from.”

“Yes, there were people from England, the US of course, but from Poland..”

“Oh, and the people from Africa, who were taking lots of photos to take back with them, “the third woman said. “One young woman had her whole trip paid for by her village because it was very expensive, so she was taking photos on her cell phone and sending them back home, so they could feel like they were on the trip with her. She said, “I am on a journey from being only about myself to discovering other people, traveling from a familiar place to a promised place.”

“Remember that woman from Poland,” the second woman said,  “who said she wasn’t very religious, but said she had to come because as she said, “You sing about these places and you make nativity scenes and you talk so much about the stories, but you never think that you will actually go here. I cannot say that I am the most religious, but just to be here on this day is significant.”

“Oh yes, it was significant.”

“Tell me, “the fourth woman said, “how did you get to Bethlehem? What was the journey like?”

“Well, it was hard because so many people were going the same way we were.”

“Oh yes, everyone was on the long obedience in the same direction road trip like Pastor Eugene Peterson wrote about in one of his books. And, someone was singing, “it seemed like a dream, too good to be true, when God returned Zion’s exiles. We laughed, we sang, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. We were the talk of the nations: ‘God was wonderful to them!” God was wonderful to us; we are one happy people.”

“That’s right. They were singing Psalm 126. At first I didn’t realize what they were singing because they were using the Message translation. When I realized it I..”

“Yes, anyway,” said the first woman, “we started out going to the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for prayers, then we attended a mass with hundreds of people at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem led by a wonderful priest, Father Kelly, I think.”

“Then, “said the second woman, “we traveled to Bethlehem, which took quite a long time and when we arrived there were just long lines after long lines. Kinda like at Disney World because this is the place where Jesus and David were born and people said it was the perfect place to be on Christmas Eve and everyone wanted to be there.”

“Did you see the manger?” the fourth woman asked.

“Well, yes, it took over an hour and half, but we saw the place where the manger had been and I was amazed to think, this is where God came to us. A pretty plain, ordinary looking place, but filled with such joy and wonder.”

“Oh yes. It was like what someone wrote about pilgrims, but I just can’t remember exactly what.

As I listened to the women, I thought about what Rev. Phil Antilla wrote about pilgrims on Passover, Pentecost and Sukkot journeys to Jerusalem. Their “road trip,” he said, “was both literal and metaphorical. Jerusalem was the highest city geographically in Palestine at the time, so nearly anyone who made this trek experienced a quite literal “ascent”. The trip however, also acted as a metaphor, representing a pilgrimage into life with God. Advent is our metaphorical pilgrimage, since every step and every song and every physical motion represents a deeper story of the Christian life.” Indeed, a long obedience in the same direction-the path of living for Christ, as Peterson wrote.

“Yes, I felt, “ the third woman said, “as though I needed to really be aware of how I can be faithful to God because of everything God has done, is doing and will be doing for me and really everybody.”

“It is like William Faulkner wrote,” the first woman said, “the psalms and our pilgrimages are not monuments, but footprints because monuments say, ‘at least I got this far’ but, footprints say, ‘this is where I was when I moved again.”

“The air was still that night in Bethlehem,” the first woman said, “even with all those people, it was quiet. Thousands of people hushed to silence by prayers of their own, recognizing God’s gift of being present with us whether we planted seeds with tears like my grandmother talked about doing in Nebraska, just hoping the seeds would germinate and wheat crops would come up, hoping the rains came at the right time and the hail stones wouldn’t come at all or whether we harvested the wheat and could pay the mortgage and bills for seed and gas for the tractors and such with maybe a little something left over. My grandmother would say the harvest was the joy God brought to them as they celebrated the harvest with songs and dancing and food and laughter from the oldest to the youngest because they came in from the fields carrying armfuls of God’s blessings that only looked like wheat sheaves.”

“Oh yes, I felt it just that way. God’s presence strengthening us and renewing us in the midst of Bethlehem, then somewhere on the journey back from Bethlehem we started singing, laughing and dancing and feeling unbinding, unbounded joy!

Drinking the rest of my coffee to wash down the last bite of blueberry pancake, I recalled Silvia Purdie’s version of psalm 126 written as a harvest song,

“Remember feeling amazing!
Remember a time of celebration –
that was the Lord God at work!
Laughter rang out,
everyone was happy,
everyone laughed till they shook with joy!
The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!

Remember feeling sad?
Remember tears running down your face –
God was with you then.
Your pain planted seeds
and your tears watered them.
The seeds grew in the tender mercy of God growing fruit of wisdom
fruit of kindness.
Gather the fruit, and celebrate
that all things work for good in God’s ways.
Those who go out weeping
shall come home rejoicing.

The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!”

I was just supposed to be having the weekly breakfast out that Tina and I enjoyed together, but the joy, laughter and story of these Advent pilgrims sitting behind me was a gift reminding me to be amazed, to be happy and to be joyful in this Advent because God comes to be with us as a baby born in a plain, ordinary stable to lead us on the path of long obedience in the same direction, so we too might carry God’s blessings from the fields of our lives with shouts of joy at the great things the Lord has done for us.

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A story based on Isaiah 64:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9

“Oww,” yelped Caleb. He sidestepped away from the single story stucco building and stood in the middle of the alley, straining to see the figure moving ahead of him in the moon and star lit night.

“Caleb?” the man said. “Is that you Caleb? Answer me.”

“Yes, it’s me. Is that you Zechariah?”
“Of course, it is. Who else would they send to come and get you and bring you back to watch the flock? Again.

”Hmm. You’re right.” Caleb said as he stepped into the main road through the village. “Aaron does always seem to pick you.”

“Yeah and I wonder what I did wrong to deserve it. So, why did you go off this time?” Zechariah asked.

“I’m looking for the light.” Caleb said, turning to peer down the narrow lane across from them.

“Light? Like a lamp?”

“No. Not a lamp. God’s light.” Caleb whispered.

“God’s light? Really? God’s light?”

“It’s you know, like the ancient story about the beginning of life. You remember. The world as we know it begins with Or Ein Sof, pure being, the Infinite, the Ultimate source of the world, the light of life of God. Well, somehow the vessel holding the Or Ein Sof, the light of God, shatters into tiny shards and the Or Ein Sof, the light of God is scattered throughout the entire universe into an infinite number of holy sparks. These countless sparks of holiness are hidden deep in every person and everything. And, what we are to do, Zechariah, is find these sparks of light and restore the world to its original wholeness, so everyone might experience the presence and love of God as close as your breath or heartbeat.”

“Right! How are we supposed to do this?”

“Well, every person and everything is a container like a lamp for holding oil only we are the container for the hidden spark of holiness and we are supposed to free that hidden spark of holiness by acts of loving kindness and compassion. Each act of loving kindness, no matter how big or small, repairs the world. This is what the wise ones say is the Tikkun Olam- the repairing and restoring of the world and all we have to do are these acts of loving kindness and compassion, then the world be a place of peace.”

“And that,” Zechariah said, rolling his eyes,”is why you came here in the middle of night.”
“Yes, you see I did such an act of loving kindness, but I didn’t see the light. So, I thought maybe the light is here in this village because I was nearby to the village when I did the act of loving kindness. But I have searched and searched this entire village from one end to the next and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, the light of God.”

“So, it’s not in this village. Let’s go back to the sheep and do what we are supposed to be doing.” Zechariah said.

“No, it has to be in this village.”

“Why?”

“Because of that star,” Caleb turned Zechariah to see the biggest, brightest star in sky. It was the biggest and brightest star Zechariah had ever seen. “That is a once in a generation star and I thought it was pointing me to come here, but maybe I was wrong.” Caleb sighed.

Zechariah smiled and clapped Caleb’s shoulder, “Maybe, you’re just in the wrong village. Look, the star is way over the horizon. Maybe, we just have to walk over that way. As a matter of fact we’ll be heading over that way in the days to come.”

“Really!” Caleb said his eyes wide and feet stamping a dance step in dirt.

“Maybe. Of course, it could just be we’re looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing and will have to wait a while longer to see the light of God.”

“The wrong place?” Caleb said.

“Yeah. Maybe, God isn’t the one who is hidden or lost like the prophet Isaiah said. Maybe, it’s us and maybe, it isn’t so much about us not finding God’s light, but about we haven’t found ourselves being found by God. Maybe, we are the ones who are lost..”
“Oh, Oh like in the days before the great flood.” Caleb said. “You know, before Noah built the ark, when people were so lost in eating and drinking, in marrying and giving away in marriage and all the other stuff God didn’t want people to be so caught up in doing.”

“Right. Maybe people get so caught up in trying to the good life..”

“Like Aaron always going on and on about buying land with his portion of the flock.” Caleb said.

“Sort of like that. Always thinking we’re pursuing the good life and trying to get more and more of it, except it never ends because there always something we don’t have.” Zechariah said.

“Never seeing the blessings right in front of us.” Caleb said.

“Never being awake to the joy and peace we have now and realizing God hasn’t left us alone, like so many people think, but has been here, is here and will be here.” Zechariah said.

“Maybe, we have to let ourselves be found by God wherever we are?”

“Maybe, we’re always looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing. Maybe, God will come to us when we least expect and in a way that is really unexpected.” Zechariah sighed.

“Maybe, that’s the reason I haven’t found the light because maybe it’s not just my one act of loving kindness, but we need a long chain of lots of acts of loving kindness and compassion, like God’s hesed. You know, just doing it all the time. Maybe, we need to wake up to the truth that every place and every moment contains a hidden spark of holiness, of God’s light of being.” Caleb said.

“And, every place and every moment is part of eternity, so that past, present and future all altogether now, because God is the beginning and end of all life.”
“You know for someone who doubts so much, Zechariah, you seem to think deeply about God.”

“Well, maybe that’s because I hang around with you looking after the sheep and staring up at the stars.”

“Maybe I’m rubbing off on you.” Caleb smiled.

“Hmm, or it’s because I’m always looking for you, my little lost sheep. C’mon, let’s go. If we get back soon maybe, Aaron won’t have us up all night watching over the sheep.”

“Yeah, maybe.” They turned to walk out of the village toward the hills where the sheep and the other shepherds stood watch, “I still wish I could just find what I was looking for.”

As the two shepherds passed the last building in the village, a small light shone through the cracks of the stable door. The sound of wind or beating wings rose up from the village.

Pray with me, “Creator of all life, you came, you come and you will come to us in Jesus Christ, unexpectedly just as the coming of your Spirit upon Mary was unexpected. May we be as inspired as she was to welcome the One who is her child and her lord and be willing to say with Mary, let it be with us your servants. May your light of life open our eyes to the gift already given us in Christ. Forgive us our restless searching for your light of life devised from our expectations of what we think you will do or be and when and where you will come to us. Instead may we become part of an endless chain of your hesed, your loving kindness and compassion as we begin this Advent journey to Bethlehem, hoping to find ourselves being found by you. Tame our ambitions, granting us the humility to act for your agenda and not our own, so it is your will that is done, not ours. May we, in the blessing of this day, see every moment as eternity and every person as holding a spark of holiness, holding your light of life within them. Amen.”

 

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The pool of water was still. Only the humming sound of a honeybee across the pool in the tangle of wisteria and willow on the edge of the water and the murmuring wheeze of the old man’s breathing broke the silence.

“Been comin’ here a long time.” The old man whispered to the man sitting next to him. The old man looked up at the sky. It was clear and cobalt. The sun shone like a gold plate reflecting light. “Good day ta be here.” His companion nodded his head in agreement.

“Yes sir. A good day! You know, I think I just might be ready. I know by the look on your face you’re wondering’ ready for what?’ Well, I’ll tell ya. I’m ready for the train to take me home. Finally, I am ready for the train. It took me a long while, but I’m finally ready. I’ve spent my whole life trying to get ready, but I never felt really ready. When Myrna died, what…three years ago….I wasn’t ready.

I was foolin’ myself still. Myrna, she was ready. She was ready near her whole life. Not a better woman around. She lived the good news. She knew it and she lived it! She took care of folks when they were sick. Baked bread for the new wives arriving in town. Helped people when they were down and out. Had me build a house for those young Murphys when they first came here. Didn’t have a nickel, but sure did have babies. Myrna made me find him a job. She was wonderful. She made us go to church every Sunday.  She said, God gave us over a hundred hours a week, we could praise the Lord for at least two of ’em. Praise him, she said. That’s what we did, too. I..I never really understood her until now. Now, I know what she meant, when she said she was ready. Be ready at anytime. Nothin’ ta fear if you’re ready, she said. Now, I know. I’m ready!”

The old man saw the expression on the face of the man sitting next to him, “You have no idea what I’m talkin’ about do you?  Well, I don’t know how ta explain it, but let me try this way.

You see, a man and a woman stood on the platform at the train station. The day was beautiful with the deep blue sky, wispy clouds floatin’ overhead, and a soft, warm breeze ruffling their clothes and coolin’ the heat of the day down to a comfortable 75 degrees.

The man stepped close ta the woman and said, “Are you waiting for the train?”

“Yes, I am.” she said and inched away.

“So am I.” He said without moving. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Not very long,” she said and smiled at him.

“Me either. Do you know when the train will be here?”

“No,” she said, “I am not sure when it will be here.”

“Maybe I should go and ask the ticket seller.”

“If you want, you may, but I’m not worried about it. I know it will be here sooner or later.” She shrugged and walked away to sit down on one of the green painted benches under a wooden canopy.

The man shuffled off ta see when the train would be there. When he came back to the platform, the woman was still sitting on the bench under the canopy. He marched over ta the bench next to her and plopped down with a “humph” and unzipped his jacket.

“Well, the ticket seller was not very helpful. He had no idea when the train would be here. Said it was delayed somewhere. Might be a long time.” The man said.

“Oh. No matter,” said the woman. “It will be here. The time is not really important.” She closed her eyes and leaned back on the bench.

“You seem very calm about all of this.” She did not answer him or open her eyes. “Don’ t you want ta catch the train and be on time?”

“Of course. I already have my ticket and I cannot be late because the train has a schedule to keep, so I know it will arrive here when the time is right.”

“Why did you get your ticket so soon? There’s plenty of time ta git the ticket.” He looked around the near empty train station. “There’s not exactly a lot of people here.”

“Yes,” she sighed heavily, “but it is better to be prepared, so when the train comes one can board it immediately.”

“Why? I can’t imagine seating is a big problem.”

“The train does not stay in the station very long because it has many other stops to make along the way. If one is not ready to board it, one risks being left behind.”

The man frowned and half-turned away, “Poppycock! I can git my ticket and still make the train. Anyway, we’ve got plenty of time.” The man lay down on the bench and fell asleep. The woman fell asleep too.

The daylight faded into darkness. The lights of the canopy shown down on the two sleeping figures as other lights in the train station broke the darkness into circles of light. In the distance, a whistle blew. The shrill sound woke the woman. She heard the stationmaster shout, “Train is comin’. Train is comin’.” She shook her herself awake and stood up. She glanced at the man still sleeping. She reached down and shook the top of his shoulder.

“The train is coming into the station. You should get up.” She said as she shook him. The man woke with a start. He wiped his mouth and sat upright. “The train is coming.” She said as she walked to the edge of the platform.

“Uh. What?” The man said. “Oh. The train. The train is comin’.” He jumped up and ran to the woman. “How far out is it?”

“I do not know exactly, but I see a light down the tracks.” She said over her shoulder.

“Oh. Oh. Do I…”he glanced toward the station “Do I have time to get a ticket?” The woman shrugged. “How about you. Did you get an extra ticket? Can I get on board with you?”

“No. Everyone needs their own ticket, their own life. I only have one. You better go and get your own.”

“Yeah,” The man dashed off.

“And, you better hurry. The train is almost here.” She shouted after him.

The great diesel train whooshed into the station. The great silver and black compartments gleaming in the circles of light. The train stopped and a door opened in front of the woman. She smiled at the conductor, handed him her ticket, and boarded the train. As soon as she was inside and sitting comfortably in a compartment, the train roared and whooshed off.

The man came running out of the station house toward the train. “Wait! Wait! he shouted. The train roared down the tracks into the darkness. He stood at the edge of the platform. He crumbled his ticket in his hand and threw it down on the tracks. He turned round and walked back to the bench under the canopy.

Somewhere in the darkness an old gospel song played, “Are you ready? Are you ready?  Are you ready to sit by throne? For the Lord is comin’ to carry you home.”

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“Welcome to the wilderness,” said the soon to be departing Dean of students at Colgate Rochester Divinity School to all the new seminary students gathered for worship in the Chapel during our first day of seminary.

Little did we know how appropriate that welcome would be, since the wilderness is the place a person enters leaving behind all that came before on the way to a journey to a new place with new relationships and new understandings of who a person or community is and how they are to live.

The wilderness is where the journey through transition takes place, but it can be a scary place and a place where survival is the first priority. That was true for the Hebrews and the other peoples who left Egypt with Moses. Egypt had been the Hebrews settled homeland for centuries where they had lived and thrived as a people, until Pharaoh got scared because they were more numerous than the Egyptians and he thought they might try a regime change by overthrowing him. So, Pharaoh did what every leader who is afraid does, he seeks to destroy his enemies. First, he enslaves the Hebrews, forcing them to work 24/7/365 building pyramids and other public works. Second, he orders Egyptian midwives to kill Hebrew male children, so the Hebrews are forced to intermarry  and have children with Egyptians.

This, of course, prompts the Hebrews to cry out to God, who hears them and answers their prayers by sending them Moses, who battles with pharaoh until pharaoh relents following the death of the first born child of every human and animal, except the Hebrews and those whose doorways were painted with the lamb’s blood, and allows the Hebrews to leave.

Of course, it all seemed wonderful to be leaving behind the life of slavery, oppression and death for a sojourn to the land of promise and abundance and the Hebrews celebrated because being a sojourner, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph meant you were on your way somewhere, on your way to the fulfillment of a promised place and a new life. Sort of like the way every seminary student and every college and high school students feels on the first day of their new adventure. Sort of the way I felt as a child every time my family moved to a new town, new city, new neighborhood, new home, and new school, well not so much the new school.

Unfortunately, the Hebrews joyfulness and positive attitude didn’t last long because they realized this wilderness trek made them less sojourner,  less a resident alien, and more wanderers as they began coping with the stress of not having resources at their disposal like food and water, being out in the heat or the cold, subject to drought or famine and warring peoples, who were suspicious of large tribes of wandering peoples, not to mention not really having the sense of being on a journey toward a destination, but mostly just being out there. Even the word wanderer, according to Walter Brueggemann, suggests precariousness where survival is the key question of each and every day. “Will we survive today? Will we have water and will we have food? Where will it come from?  Israel, Brueggemann writes, experiences the bitterness of being landless, being exposed and helpless, victimized by anything that happened to be threatening them at any given moment. The people may have been on the way somewhere, but it was a dim comprehension of where they were going.

In the wilderness, faith is not easy. Anger and unrest are plentiful and reading Exodus and Numbers give ample voice to the whole menagerie of emotions the Hebrews were experiencing. Their wilderness experience is not really unlike that of our European ancestors, who came to this continent feeling they were on an Exodus journey to a new land God seemed to be promising to them, except upon arrival their fears of the wilderness became real, as they too experienced being in a precarious, frightening situation without resources, being victimized by everything, helpless, vulnerable, exposed and struggling for survival. Our ancestors had no actual experience of wilderness because they came from settled lands and in many cases from large urban centers, so they projected their anxieties about wilderness onto the new land they journeyed to get to. Thus, for our ancestors the wilderness was a place where the devil came to get you, it was unsafe and needed to be tamed and civilized so it might resemble the European culture and society they had left behind, a real re-creation of the good old days. Even the indigenous peoples who lived on the land needed to be conquered, enslaved, tamed or annihilated. Reading colonial era poetry, diaries of early colonial settlers or even Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” bears this out.

Curiously enough, congregations in transition feel the same way the Hebrews and our European ancestors felt as they, like the Hebrews, experience wilderness and romanticize the “good old days” while anger, resentments, fear, focusing on survival;  perhaps thinking they are short on resources, and feeling vulnerable, uncertain about where they are going and if they are really going anywhere at all. They feel more like wanderers than sojourners and faith is not easy.

Except, the Israelites were not alone and were not without resources for life because God was with them, leading them, feeding them, giving them water and protecting them, and teaching them how to be a people of compassion, wholeness and well-being. What God was trying to do of course was to mold and shape them into being a particular kind of people. That is, also, what the wilderness experience is about as the desert mothers and fathers called the wilderness the furnace of transformation. The place where all the business and confusion of our lives is burned away, so we might see more clearly how truly important are the choices set before us, choices of life and choices of death. So, we might meet God and gain clarity about what it means to be in a relationship with the divine based on trusting the promises of life God makes with humanity and creation and be transformed by the experience.

This is, also, the lesson Jesus teaches us by his journey into the wilderness furnace of transformation, the first place Jesus goes after his baptism and anointing with the Holy Spirit. There he was tempted by the devil with what Henri Nouwen calls, “the three compulsions of this world: to be relevant (turn stones into bread), to be spectacular (throw yourself down), and to be powerful (I will give these kingdoms). It was in this furnace of transformation that Jesus was tempted to turn away from God the way the first generation Hebrew wanderers did, the way our European ancestors did, the way congregations in transition do, but that isn’t what Jesus did. He affirmed God is the only source of life and identity (you must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone by serving those whom God loves, which is everyone, especially the least and the lost.) and if one trusts God, then there is no need seeking guarantees that the promises of an abundant life are real, nor is there a need to test God to see if God is really listening and paying attention to us. All a person, a community or a congregation need do is to learn the lessons God is teaching through the stories of the Hebrew wanderers, the story of God’s presence with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and the Israelites before, during and after exile as well as the stories of Jesus’ life and the life of the early church, being aware as George Herbert wrote in his poem about the Israelites’ struggles to enter the land God promised them, “their story pens and sets us down” which is to say their story claims those who remember it and retell it, marking and shaping all who do so by the same faithfulness of God, which elicits the same response of trust in God as the person, the community or the congregation live authentically their why, their identity as the reason God created them to serve God’s agenda.

I pray it may be so for us claiming to be a compassionate Christian community, fostering a personal connection with God for people of ages and expressing God’s love through worship, education, mission, music and fellowship living in a time of confusion and chaos where the old techniques and ways of doing church no longer work and we feel more like wanderers than sojourning pilgrims.

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