My Neighbor’s Gift

A prayer for today from Rev. Arthur A.R. Nelson:

I Need To Breathe Deeply

Eternal Friend, grant me an ease to breathe deeply of this moment, this light, this miracle of now. Beneath the din and fury of great movements and harsh news and urgent crises, make me attentive still to good news, to small occasions, and the grace of what is possible for me to be, to do, to give, to receive, that I may miss neither my neighbor’s gift nor my enemy’s need.

Precious Lord, grant me a sense of humor that adds perspective to compassion, gratitude that adds persistent to courage, quietness of spirit that adds irrepressibility to hope, openness of mind that adds surprise to joy; that with gladness of heart I may link arm and aim with the One who saw signs of your kingdom in salt and yeast, pearls and seeds, travelers and tax collectors, sowers and harlots, foreigners and fishermen, and who opens my eyes with these signs and my ears with the summons to follow something more of justice and joy.


The prayer resonates with my spirit in so many ways. Mostly, though, it causes me to recall these holy moments with my 4 year old neighbor Abigail, who almost daily is shouting at me/us from the edge of the fence: “Hey! Hey! How are you? Come over here and see me!” She, along with her little brother and dads moved in about a year ago. Her strong and tenacious calling out is a gift during a time like this. One day it’s “look at our fountain!”, the next, “I got a slip and slide!” Sometimes, though, the questions and opinions are more prodding: here’s a few I’ve gotten: “Where are your parents?” “Why do you live in that house?” (her finger pointing) — and “I’m not so fond of that color” as she calls out my lime green golf shirt. Abigail is most certainly fully alive and alert to life. One day, early on, she called me over and said, “so tell me about yourself”. And I did, and she told me about herself. A holy moment indeed. Time to breathe deep.

I reflect on our many small conversations with joy, as Abigail teaches me about what it means to be a neighbor — acknowledging each other’s lives and giving and receiving bits and pieces of life’s journey, breaking through the constant pull toward a more easy and simple co-existence, risking opinions and even invasive questions that call for vulnerability and express care. These are, as Pastor Art says, the “small occasions” revealing “the grace of what is possible for me to be, to do, to give, to receive.”

It makes more sense to me because of Abigail, all this talk of Jesus about the need to become like a little child. These days she is the presence of Christ for me.

God Reflectors

During this Pandemic, animal shelters have emptied out. For those of us who are blessed to live with pets, this is no surprise. There is little more comforting than the love of these holy companions, who in so many ways reflect God’s love for us.

For us, as you know, Silas, our Labrador retriever, has travelled with us through life’s ups and downs now for almost 13 years. His dog metabolism finds him aged 90 now; his powerful back hips now betray him. We treasure each day, each moment with him, knowing that time will soon bring us to goodbye. The wonder of life’s loving leads us to grieving it’s loss. But what would life be for us without such love, after all?

More than anything, we see and experience the love of God for us through these creatures of his making, as Wendy Francisco says so well in her hymn/poem “God and Dog”:

I look up and I see God
I look down and see my dog
Simple spelling…GOD
same word backwards, DOG
they would stay with me all day
I’m the one who walks away
But both of them just wait for me
And dance act my return with glee
Both love me no matter what
Divine God and canine mutt
I take it hard each time I fail
But God forgives, dog wags his tail
God thought up and made the dog
Dog reflects a part of God
I’ve seen love from both sides now
It’s everywhere, amen, bow wow 
I look up and I see God
I look down and see my Dog
and in my human frailty
I can’t match their love for me

Thanks be to God for these companions along the way.

(This reflection is dedicated to the memory of Trygg Magnusson, who passed away earlier this week)

Peter Hawkinson

IMG_0001

 

The Way of Christ

“All Things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,”, but not all things build up. Let no one seek their own good, but the good of their neighbor.” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

Before long it seems some changes will come for us. Every state now is taking steps to open up in some way, shape, or form. And though we have many differing opinions about the unfolding plans, we say “Thank you Lord!” for small steps, even small steps back toward life as we knew it before. The word from Governor Pritzker is that we are on track to move from phase 2 to phase 3 of our state re-entry plan on May 29.

Patience will be the virtue for which we pray, as things will unfold in the church slowly, more than we would like. In Phase 3 gatherings are limited to 10 or less, and in phase 4 (a minimum of a month later) gatherings will be limited to 50 or less. It will likely be a while before we share that great joy of all being together again in worship. This we grieve.

Yet we might also see this intentional path as a way of deep caring for one another. Tuesday night on our executive board Zoom call pastor Jen shared that as we move from phase 2 to phase 3 we might do well to reflect on what’s lawful – vs – what’s beneficial. She had to be thinking about the scripture above, where Paul is talking with the early church about dietary laws. As the church becomes full of the world, as gentiles and pagans enter the community, how will kosher laws be kept? What happens when so called “unclean” foods are set before you on someone else’s table?

His answer is that in Christ we are set free to love and serve others. “Let no one seek their own good, but the good of their neighbor.” I woke up early this morning feeling that this is the answer to all our problems in the world, to this pandemic’s relentless hold on humanity, and also to our hopes and opinions for the best way to start back home to life again. It is the Christ move, the God way, the Spirit’s nudging that we might consider the good of others more than what our own rights and privileges are.

As we think about the Church — our hearts are full for our seniors, and for those with underlying medical conditions. We discern what to do thinking about those with depleted immune systems. As a community fully committed to choosing life, we don’t want to worship together in person if it risks the health and life of others. We differentiate between what we’re told we have the right to do and what in fact is right, best, and good for our neighbors. This causes us to have more patience and perspective in the social distance.

Our time will come! And in the meantime chances for small circles of fellowship will soon commence, albeit at a social distance.

As you watch the news, and read the papers, and talk with friends, and form your opinions about what is right to do in the world and in the church, do so as one set free not only from your sins but from the need to cling to your own rights and privilege. Embrace the way of Christ, and consider what is best for your neighbor. And be patient.

Maybe Paul’s word to the church is naive. But maybe not. Maybe this is actually the way to healing and life for all.

The Prophet’s Call for US

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”                 (Amos 5:20-24)

My heart is heavy today even though the sun is shining. On February 23, a Sunday Afternoon,  Ahmaud Arbery, a 25 year old African American man, was jogging through a Portsmouth, Georgia neighborhood when he was confronted and shot to death by a white man and his son who said he “resembled” a description they had heard about a local robbery suspect. Add his name to tens of thousands of other young black men who have died like this, along with thousands who were lynched from the end of the civil war until the second world war.

I feel drawn myself to cry out for justice, as these men who killed Ahmaud have not yet to my knowledge been arrested. And I know, I know, there may be more to say about what happened, although a video released begs to differ with grim details.

What I’m wrestling with is the way I safely distance myself — “I don’t have guns, I don’t hate, I’m not a racist, my family wasn’t in America when slavery was going on, I would never do something like that…” — But if I’m honest, I feel the harsh words through Amos of God’s anger and disgust as mine to own, as ours to own as white America, and especially as the white Christian community. Excuses won’t do, can’t cut the mustard when what’s just and right is at stake. We need to listen and watch, stop getting defensive, and sit in ashes together. We need to repent of our history, which begins by learning and owning what white people have done and are still doing to black people in this country, and Native Americans before them.

An American  society that’s right and just can begin to breathe only if and when we who are white begin to own our history of “not loving our neighbors as ourselves”, but rather taking advantage of others for our own gain. And what is desperately needed is a white church driven by God’s justice fire that starts strongly advocating for and seeking justice for black people in this country, racially, in terms of incarceration, economics, education….every dimension of our common life needs to be made right and whole, just. This is what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves — to receive the anger, pain, sorrow, and truth that our our black sisters and brothers have for us to hear, and OWN it, and from that place of our own repentance work diligently for what is just and right.

All this is impossible if we deflect the prophet’s words as meant for someone else, or just become defensive so that we don’t have to grapple with the pain of racism’s broad sweep through our history, roaming our suburban streets still. Justice will never come for our African American neighbors until we as the white community and especially the white church in America acknowledge our wrong, “the things we have done and the things we have left undone.”

I pray it might be so. I sit in ashes today, and invite you to join me.

Letting Go

Psalm 131

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things 
    too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. 

O Israel, hope in the LORD
    from this time on and forevermore. 

The psalms are a rich trove of thoughts and feelings, words which we cling to on our journey through life with the Living God. This little ditty shouts that less is indeed more. I first encountered it during a painful season of my life when I was grieving the loss of love and my grandmother’s death. I read it so much that I memorized it, because somehow it brought me to a deep calm and rest even though life’s questions remained. One day it came alive in a new way when I was at Loree’s, the coffee shop on Foster avenue where Starbucks is nowadays. Over coffee and my toasted pecan roll in some kind of anxious time I saw a family enter, the father cradling a a toddler who was fast asleep, with arms stretched out in the air. Not a worry or care about falling or being dropped. Just fast asleep and at peace in his dad’s embrace: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is within me.”

This psalm, it seems, is made for a moment like we are having together, this kind of “once in a lifetime” time. There’s so many questions we ask bu can’t answer, and so much  about what’s going on that we can’t begin to understand. A pandemic. How easy it is to “occupy myself with things that are to great and too marvelous for me.” The invitation I can’t refuse is to let go, to let go for just a while, and rest, be at peace, trust in the One who holds me. The invitation is to “hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore.”

That’s the elixir! To trust in, to hope in the God of all life, and that God understands what I cannot, and is at work in the world in ways I can’t fully see or understand. And ultimately, to offer life’s enduring questions and concerns to this faithful, loving God, to entrust the mysteries of life to God, and let go, and find rest in God’s promise to hold onto me.

Questions remain. Problems, pains, and sorrows persist. Those haunting “why” questions linger. If we can give them to God for a bit, and rest, they’ll still be there when our slumber is over.

So try it with me. Let’s work on it together. Work on letting go. Stop occupying your mind and heart weigh you down with the things you can’t understand or explain. Trust them to God’s keeping for awhile. Take a walk in the sunshine (it’s coming in the next couple of days!) Watch everything coming to life around you in God’s creation. pen a poem, or bake some of your favorite cookies. Find sabbath rest. Trust in the LORD who has a firm hold on you, now and forevermore.

God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.

 

 

Darkness and Light

” What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:4-5

These days find us digging into boxes in the basement. You too? Treasures are yielded as we reconnect with ancestors who left behind poetic treasures and reflections. They lived through times like these. They help us.

Here’s a story from my grandfather Eric and a poem from his wife Lydia, both written 95 years ago in 1925 when living in Chicago. Who knows, but maybe they were connected as they celebrated light in the darkness. From Eric:

I walked in the twilight on north Bernard Street in Chicago. I was going to North Park. Halfway to Foster Avenue I saw a little boy acting strangely. With his arms lifted, and his hands continually pushing away from him, he ran around in a circle. I had never seen such a game before, so I moved toward him and asked him what he was doing. “I’m pushing a away the darkness!” he said. Dear little philosopher, I had never before heard human activity put so simply. I asked the boy if he thought he would succeed. “Shucks no, I’ll have to go in and turn on the light.” So it is. Only physical light can conquer darkness and only God can conquer the deeper darkness that encompasses humankind.

Then this poem from Lydia:

Dawn lights the sky with splendor of light
Chasing out swiftly all things of the night
Wakened from slumbers dreams sweetly enjoyed
Life would be empty, dreamless and void
Dreamless and void without Thee.      

Push away the darkness, one moment, one day at a time. Light a candle, get up for sunrise, and contemplate God’s goodness in sending Jesus to us, who is the Light of the world, and who overcomes the darkness!

” What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:4-5

Peter Hawkinson

Easter In Us

“The early disciples had little ritual but a mighty realization. They went out not remembering Christ, but experiencing him. He was not a mere fair and beautiful story to remember with gratitude — he was a living, redemptive, actual presence then and there. They went out with the joyous and grateful cry, “Christ Lives in me!” The Jesus of history had become the Christ of experience.” (E. Stanley Jones)

Easter has come. Has it gone from us? We have a few weeks left with the gospels to hear those post-resurrection stories of disciples locked up in fear until they fish again, of friends on the Emmaus road home wishing it had all turned out differently, their hearts burning with grief. All of them are encountered by the risen Christ, who lingered for forty days before his ascension, when he said to them, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”….and then this: “and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28). Then he left them. Some kind of parting words!

But those disciples, feeble and frail and filled with fear as they were prone to be, they went out into the world and witnessed to what had happened. They loved courageously, so much so that they suffered for their faith. They preached and touched and served all over the world. In all of this, they took their risen Lord at His word, that he would indeed always be with them. And so the Church was born. The gospels end, and the Acts of the disciples begin. The story goes on!

Sometime between midnight and the morning of December 4, 1875, the German steamship “Deutschland” ran aground on a shoal 25 miles off the English coast. The steamship immediately began taking on water and gale force winds Brough the sea wall over the sides of the ship. Tragically, 78 lives were lost, among them five Franciscan nuns who had been forced out of Germany. In the way of the tragedy that filled the English news, the poet and priest wrote the poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”. Towards the end of the poem there is this line: “let Him (Christ) easter in us”.

Here’s an invitation. Beginning next Wednesday evening, April 22, at 7 p.m. we will begin a bible study, reading the book of acts together using ZOOM to help us create community, in hopes that we might wonder together how we can be the church and witness to Christ’s death and resurrection in our time. Watch for more details to come.

Here’s another invitation. Contemplate what it might look like for Christ to “Easter” in you, and all that it means to trust that Jesus is with you always. I’m really missing once each easter when we sing this:

“He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way. He lives, he lives, salvation to impart! You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” (Hymnal 253)

There is nothing, not even a pandemic and all its patterns, that can mute the presence of the Living Christ. Easter is NEVER over! Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

Light a Candle

Dear Friends,

It is holy Saturday. Today, we wonder what we mean when we say that Jesus, buried, “descended into hell.” We contemplate what reality would be if this indeed was the final picture, of God entombed, memorialized forever. That’s all.

But in fact, as John says it, “a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is a good day to light a candle and keep it lit, to proclaim the light, even on holy Saturday, as Jesus lies dead in his grave. Light a candle, and read these words from Paul a few times throughout the day:

Romans 8:18-39

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Tuesday

Matthew 26:1-13 

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

It’s the Tuesday after his triumphal entry, and Jesus is lurking in Bethany, on the outskirts of town, at the home of Simon the Leper, when bracketed by brutality comes a beautiful story.

The chief priests and elders are pushing Caiaphas to lower the boom, and be done with Jesus. Judas has one foot out the door to get things rolling, when an unnamed woman suddenly appears and breaks open her alabaster jar – a year’s wage gone, just like that, hence the disciples’ angry, head shaking question, “Why the waste?”. A question any one fighting the world’s battles would ask. But Christ Jesus silently approves.

Use your senses. Look at her pouring it out onto his head, in a quick moment, as if she’s lost control. Smell the pungent fragrance. Listen to her mumbling word of some ancient psalm as she rubs the oil into his hair. Hear also and more clearly the disgust of his friends. Sit in that space for a while with your senses. Finally Jesus says something. What does his voice sound like when he says, “She blesses me, she makes me ready to be buried.” What do you see in his eyes when he looks up, dripping wet, and asks, “Why are you troubling this woman?” What lingers in your heart when he promises with his “Amen, amen” (truly I tell you) “what she has done will be remembered and told forever.”

The scandal is the gift, revealing that nothing else matters to her than blessing Jesus, lavishing him with what she has to give. It’s beautiful how she pours out herself with the Nard. Wonder with me what she knows about him that the others miss?  What is it? Who knows, maybe she was an angel sent from heaven?

But alas, the moment will not linger, it’s gone quickly, as Judas slams the door in disgust on the way out. It is this beauty that sets things in motion, once and for all. It’s Tuesday of holy week. Sit in the quiet and contemplate the beauty and shame of it all.

Peter Hawkinson

Thanks

Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms, hath blessed us on our way,
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. (Covenant Hymnal, 31)

This great hymn was written by Lutheran Pastor Martin Rinkhart, serving in the walled city of Eilenburg, Germany during the horrors of the thirty years war, 1618-1648 — a most brutal span of years filled with war, famine, and the Black Plague. There were four ministers in the town: one abandoned his post, and pastor Rinkhart officiated at the funerals for the other two. 1637 was the year of the Black Plague. As the only pastor left, he conducted an average of 40 funerals a day, and 4,480 in all. In May of that year his own wife died.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;

and keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills in this world and the next.

Wanting to give his children a song to sing to God in thanks at the dinner table, Rinkart sat down and composed what would become a beloved thanksgiving hymn. While living in a moment dominated by death, Martin wrote this timeless prayer of thanksgiving for his children.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,
the Son, and him who reigns with them in highest heaven,
the one eternal God, whom earth and heav’n adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore. 

All is well, friends, even in these deadly days. Gratitude comes from faith in God’s presence and promises, that even this world’s dark tragedies cannot touch. Love wins, life wins. “NO!” we shout into the face of what we face: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37). 

We join brother Martin in the song which will get us through these days.

-Pastor Pete